There is no doubt that the Kansas City Royals are a better team now after the acquisition of former Cleveland first baseman Carlos Santana, who seems pumped to be a Royal, if his Instagram is any indication:
While some national analysts may still be skeptical on the deal and if it will move the needle for the Royals, the fact of the matter is this: owner John Sherman and general manager Dayton Moore are serious about winning in 2021. Furthermore, while Santana may be the main prize of the Royals this off-season, it doesn’t feel like the Royals are done yet when it comes building this roster for 2021 (after all, the Royals still do have three open spots on the 40-man roster to fill).
However, to think that there is no ripple effect in the organization from this deal is ignorant thinking. While no releases or designated for assignment transactions were made in the wake of Santana’s signing (mostly because they have plenty of roster space), there are some Royals currently on the 40-man roster, four in particular, whose future in Kansas City look even hazier at this moment. Granted, it is certainly possible, if not likely, that they will earn an invite to Spring Training, and perhaps earn a spot on the active or 40-man roster with a strong Cactus League performance. That being said, the chips will be stacked against them going into camp in Surprise, and a lot may have to go right for them to have a chance to make an impact in Kansas City in 2021.
Thus, let’s take a look at four players on the Royals roster who are affected by the Santana signing (and to a lesser extent, the Michael Taylor signing).
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B
No question, the Santana signing puts O’Hearn’s future in Kansas City in doubt. The slugging first-baseman has had an up and down tenure as the Royals’ first baseman, as he started off his career promisingly in a 44 game sample toward the end of the 2018 season. In 170 plate appearances that year, O’Hearn hit 12 home runs and 30 RBI and posted a slash of .262/.353/.597 with a wRC+ of 153, according to Fangraphs. Though O’Hearn has never been an “elite” prospect in the Royals system (he’s fluctuated in rankings a lot over his career), there was some thought after 2018 that O’Hearn could at least hold down the fort for a few more seasons at least until former first round pick Nick Pratto was ready.
Unfortunately, O’Hearn took a step back in 2019 and has been regressing ever since. Even though he played 105 games and put up 370 plate appearances two years ago, O’Hearn only posted a .195/.281/.369 slash and a wRC+ of 68, a huge disappointment considering the offensive output he produced in 2018. In 2020, things didn’t get better, even though he had the support of manager Mike Matheny in Spring Training. O’Hearn posted a .195/.303/.301 slash and a wRC+ of 65 in 42 games and 132 plate appearances.
What has been concerning is O’Hearn’s regression in power, as his ISO went from .336 in 2018 to .174 in 2019 to .106 in 2020. Considering defense isn’t O’Hearn’s strong suit (he has accumulated a minus-17.6 Def, according to Fangraphs over his career), the 27-year-old Texan needs to hit for power to have any value. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case the past two seasons, and it’s not surprising that Moore went outside the organization find a solution at first base for 2021 (and a pretty good one in Santana).
O’Hearn, barring any major moves or a trade, will likely be invited to Spring Training for a shot to earn a role as a bat off the bench. However, considering O’Hearn’s power struggles, strikeout issues (he has a career 26.9 percent strikeout rate), and lack of defensive utility, it seems unlikely that O’Hearn will be on the Royals roster come Opening Day.
Ryan McBroom, 1B/OF
Honestly, Royals fans cannot talk about Ryan O’Hearn without mentioning the other “Ryan”: Ryan McBroom. McBroom was acquired from the Yankees in 2019, and made his big league debut in Kansas City as a first-base/outfield utility type. According to Fangraphs, he posted a .293/.360/.361 slash and wRC+ in 23 games and 80 plate appearances in 2019. Furthermore, he parlayed that decent stretch with a strong Spring Training in 2020 to earn a spot on the Royals active roster.
Unfortunately, much like the other “Ryan”, McBroom is known more for his bat than his glove, and his high-strikeout, low-walk approach (he posted a BB/K ratio of 0.13) didn’t necessarily earn him much playing time in 2020. McBroom only played 36 games and accumulated 85 plate appearances in 2020. In that stint, he ended up posting a slash of .247/.282/.506 and a wRC+ of 107, which was mostly fueled by his six home runs, most of them coming in pinch hitting opportunities. Below is an example of McBroom coming through in a limited opportunity off the bench against the rival Cardinals:
Ultimately, McBroom and O’Hearn offer the same value the Royals, albeit with small differences. O’Hearn has slightly better plate discipline and has a better MLB track record (mostly based on 2018). McBroom has a little more positional utility (he can play outfield, unlike O’Hearn), and he would probably succeed in a pinch hitting role better than O’Hearn. Nonetheless, the Santana signing puts the pressure on McBroom, and he’ll have to outperform O’Hearn this spring if he wants to stay on this Royals roster.
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
At this point, it’s hard to see what Gutierrez’s immediate future will be in Kansas City. Gutierrez offers some tantalizing tools: Baseball America rated his infield arm as the best in the Royals system, and he performed decently in 20 game, 79 plate appearance sample in 2019, as he posted a .260/.304/.356 slash as well as a 72 wRC+, according to Fangraphs. That being said, it just has not worked out thus far for Gutierrez since coming over to Kansas City from Washington in the Kelvin Herrera trade in 2018. He has been on the injured list for extended periods of time twice (2019 and 2020), and the Royals have sought other options at third over him the past two seasons. Last year, the Royals went with Phillies non-tender Maikel Franco to man the hot corner, and now, even though Franco was non-tendered by the Royals this Winter, the Santana signing most likely will move Hunter Dozier back to third, which once again will block Gutierrez.
In many ways, Gutierrez’s story feels very similar to former third-base prospect Cheslor Cuthbert. Cuthbert was a good, not great prospect who was blocked for a while by Mike Moustakas. While Cuthbert showed promise filling in for Moose at third in 2016 (due to Moose missing most of the year due to injury), he never really put it together in his time as a Royal, as he ended up accumulating a career minus-1.1 WAR over five seasons in Kansas City. Cuthbert was well-liked by Royals fans, and there were times where it seemed like he was on the cusp of turning the corner as a Royals utility player. But it never worked out for him, and now he’s trying to stick at the MLB level with the Cincinnati Reds.
Gutierrez’s outlook feels very similar, though to be fair, Gutierrez does have better tools than Cuthbert. That being said, it just seems to be one thing or the other that has prevented Gutierrez from getting a more extended look at the hot corner in Kansas City. With Dozier moving back, and Santana entrenched at first, it seems likely that Gutierrez will continue to get ignored in 2021 by the Royals brass, which could put him on the block for a trade or two either this Winter or early next season.
Edward Olivares, OF
Unlike O’Hearn, McBroom, or Gutierrez, Olivares still has an optimistic outlook in Kansas City. He had a decent campaign with the Royals last year, as he posted a .274/.292/.419 slash and wRC+ of 88 in 18 games and 65 plate appearances. It is certainly not of the question to think that he could compete for a fourth outfielder role this Spring. That being said, though Olivares did play 31 total games at the MLB level in 2020 between San Diego and Kansas City, he only played up to Double-A prior to 2020, and it is possible that he could use some development from the Royals staff, especially on defense. Olivares has the athleticism and speed to be a good defensive outfielder in Kauffman Stadium, but his instincts and reads still need a little work. (There is hope Rusty Kuntz can make an impact, and he was a big advocate for Olivares when it came to trading for him in the Rosenthal deal.)
However, why is Olivares on this list, even though he still could be a valuable contributor in 2021? Well, there was some thought that Olivares could be a starting outfielder next season, especially after he showed some flashes at the plate in his move from San Diego to Kansas City. However, with the Taylor and Santana signings, it seems like Moore and Matheny will be advocating a win-now mindset, which in turn will give proven veterans first shot at jobs over the younger players on the 40-man roster. That hurts Olivares, who could have potential as a starting outfielder in Kansas City if given a full off-season to develop and an extended chance to start 2021.
It is possible that Olivares could platoon with projected left fielder Franchy Cordero, a left-handed hitter who has struggled with injury issues over his career. A platoon would give Crodero much needed rest to preserve his health, and it would also give at-bats to Olivares, which in turn would help the Royals gain a better look and gauge what kind of future Olivares may have in Kansas City. That being said, while a platoon role is better than Triple-A Omaha, Olivares has competition at the outfield position after 2021: Khalil Lee was just added to the 40-man roster, and it is possible that Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias, and Brewer Hicklen could be added either later this year or next off-season (if Hicklen and Matias are not drafted in the Rule 5 Draft, Thursday, of course). Thus, Olivares will have a small window to show what he could do, and a platoon role may not be enough time to convince the Royals brass that he is long-term option in the Royals outfield.
Thus, with the Taylor and Santana signings, Olivares will need to show what he can do in the field and at the plate…and quickly.
Or else he could be on the outside-looking-in as well, much like O’Hearn, McBroom and Gutierrez.