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The Royals Have A DH Problem

It isn’t a new problem, either

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Kansas City Royals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have a somewhat underwhelming history at DH. Since 1969, Kansas City designated hitters ranks 12 among 16 qualified franchises in wRC+ and fWAR. In fact, Astros designated hitters have already accumulated 27% of the Royals’ total fWAR contribution from its designated hitters despite having been in the American League for just nine seasons.

Since 2017, only the White Sox and Tigers have lower fWARs from their designated hitters than the Royals. So if you’re a glass-half-full kinda person, Kansas City designated hitters are right in the middle of their division in production!

If you’re a glass-half-empty kinda person, though, it certainly looks a lot like this problem will continue into 2022. And this is a significant problem. The Royals have plenty of question marks and plenty of nuanced battles to fight within its own roster, but the DH position is pretty simple: Put someone in that position that can hit.

As of right now, Hunter Dozier is slated to be the DH. Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez should get at-bats there as well. The latter player of that group got MVP votes last season and hit 48 homers, but he did so primarily as a catcher. The other two ranked 126 and 127 out of 132 qualified hitters in wRC+. That’s not great.

Neither belong anywhere near the DH position in their current form. The lowest wRC+ among full-time DHs last season was 92 from Miguel Cabrera. This means that both Santana and Dozier are 10% off the pace of the worst DH in baseball while being the Royals third and fifth highest-paid players, respectively.

Both fought injuries last season, so there is a reasonable belief that they could bounce back. But unlike in years past, there might be guys pushing up against them if they aren’t hitting early.

In fact, this conversation could be very different come May or June if any combination of Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, or Vinnie Pasquantino force the Royals’ hand and get a call-up. But are any of those guys legitimate solutions at the DH position, both in the short-term and the long-term?

Pratto is a 60 FV defender according to Fangraphs and 70 FV according to MLB. He won’t be a DH. But if he pushed his way to the bigs, that could mean at least one of Santana or Dozier getting the boot.

Then you have Melendez, who could be a short-term solution at DH but is unlikely to be a long-term option with his defensive skills and athleticism. He’s also the most volatile hitter of the group, so it’s questionable that he would even solve the problem in the short term.

Vinnie seems to make the most sense, both in the short-term and the long-term. ZiPS projects Pratto, Melendez, and Pasquantino to be better than Dozier and Santana, in pretty resounding fashion. But Pasquantino’s projected .794 OPS specifically is tied with Salvy for the highest projection on the club, with Pratto right behind at .793.

I have no problem with the Royals starting those three guys in AAA. A shortened spring, paired with just one season of proven production from the group leaves us needing a bit more to see that they’re ready. But how long will they leave Dozier in that spot if he starts off slow and those three are hitting? And will the Royals replace him with Santana by promoting Pratto or will they replace Santana as well?

To be clear, these are good problems to have. In a perfect world, all three of those guys will force their way to Kansas City. And none of these things take into account potential injuries that could move Dozier to another position. But one thing is certain: The Royals have to have more production from this position. They have guys who might be able to give it to them. The question is how long it will be before we see them.