The Kansas City Royals will pay Carlos Santana $17.5 million to play baseball the next two years.
On its face, that is a bland statement. The Royals won’t be very good, the money is not an eye-popping amount, the contract not long.
But, it’s telling, both for the Nationals and the offseason.
The Nationals are empty at first base. They could again conjure a left-right platoon to resolve the issue. Or, they could have paid someone like Santana, who would play the position full-time and hit home runs and walk a lot. It's basically what he does. Santana’s 162-game averages are 26 home runs, 107 walks (against 114 strikeouts) and a 120 OPS-plus. This kind of work is fetching for a base salary of just $7 million next year. It’s precisely what the Nationals could use.
We don’t, and won’t, know the specific nature of the Nationals’ interest in Santana. He’s entering his age-35 season and Mike Rizzo wants a younger roster. So, maybe that moved the Nationals off him. Perhaps they wanted a one-plus-one deal where the second year was at least a mutual option. Rizzo likes that approach with veteran players. Players, not so much. A guaranteed second-year raise would be the preference for almost any player, which is precisely the situation for Santana in Kansas City.
It’s (probably) an oversimplification to say the Nationals could have offered two years, $19 million and Santana would be in uniform next spring.
The Nationals paid Eric Thames $4 million last season. Ryan Zimmerman’s deal was for $2 million with incentives. Howie Kendrick signed a $6.25 million deal. So, paying a full-time first baseman $7 million annually next season is well within budget lines -- were this a non-pandemic offseason.
We’ll see what the Nationals end up doing. That will better inform where they were financially when it came to Santana. Because last year’s budget makes exceeding his Kansas City offer -- in total dollars -- appear fully viable.
Without Santana, the first base market thins. He was by far the best single option on the list. Here’s a look at who remains, ranked by fWAR accrued the last two seasons (full 2019 and the 60-game season of 2020):
Asdrúbal Cabrera (35, 1.8) Danny Santana (30, 1.7) Mitch Moreland (35, 1.6) Eric Thames (34, 1.2) Renato Núñez (27, 0.9) C.J. Cron (31, 0.6) Jedd Gyorko (32, 0.1) Ryan Zimmerman (36, 0.1) Charlie Culberson (32, -0.1) Phil Gosselin (32, -0.1) Logan Morrison (33, -0.3) Daniel Murphy (36, -1.1)
The list shows two things: it will be difficult to become younger at the position without moving someone from a prior spot (think Joc Pederson, 28, from outfield to first). And the available options are...not great. A platoon with Moreland and a right-handed bat may be the optimal choice, at this point. Cron has a career .495 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers. He, combined with Moreland, would be an intriguing platoon. But less costly than Santana? Perhaps.
Moreland signed a $3 million contract with Boston last season. Cron was going to make $6.1 million. He played 13 games last season before a knee injury ended his year. Combined, they may be an inexpensive path to productivity and closing two more spots on the 40-man roster.
But they are not the simplicity of Santana, who heads to Kansas City on an early, low-end deal which is yet another indicator of the shallow spending to come this offseason.