There are a myriad of issues with the Royals this season, but there are two that seem to draw the most ire from fans. One is the employment of pitching coach Cal Eldred, who I called to be fired last week (narrator: he was not fired). The other is the employment of Carlos Santana at first base while prospect Vinnie Pasquantino continues to mash in Triple-A Omaha.
Carlos Santana has been quite bad this year, and in fact, has been quite bad for a long time. This season, he is hitting .150/.287/.242 with two home runs in 35 games. Over the last calendar year, he is hitting .187/.287/.283 in 142 games, and his 61 wRC+ is the worst among all qualified hitters. In the last two calendar years, he is hitting .202/.322/.330 in 253 games, and his 84 wRC+ is the fourth-worst in baseball.
Meanwhile Vinnie Pasquantino continues to destroy the International League. In 47 games with Omaha, he is hitting .304/.395/.679 with 15 home runs and 25 walks to 30 strikeouts. He leads all Triple-A hitters in wRC+, is tied for the most home runs, and has the ninth-best walk-to-strikeout ratio. According to Alec Lewis, some opposing scouts have said he is ready for big league action.
So why isn’t the 24-year-old slugger in Kansas City? General Manager JJ Picollo addressed Pasquantino this week.
Vinnie, I was looking at this the other day, he just hit the 150 at-bat mark in Triple-A. He had 200 at-bats in Double-A.
So when you look at upper level at-bats, he’s had 350 upper level at-bats. That’s not even a season’s worth, over two levels. You’d like to get, really, a full season at the highest level. That’s not set in stone, but generally you’d like to see 500, 550 plate appearances at the highest level.
Pasquantino was an 11th round pick in 2019 out of Old Dominion, and the Royals sent him to Rookie Ball in Burlington that year. Despite being a college player and despite mashing that year (.294/.371/.592 with 14 home runs in 57 games) they kept him at Burlington instead of moving him up to the more advanced rookie ball team in Idaho Falls.
The entire 2020 season was wiped out due to COVID-19, so Pasquantino began the 2021 season in High-A. After just 61 games there, he was promoted to Double-A, where he finished his season combining for a .300 average, 24 home runs, and as many walks (60) as strikeouts.
The left-handed slugger began this year in Triple-A and has mashed from the start, but has been particularly torrid lately. He hit 12 home runs in 26 games in May with a .320 average, and earned International League Player of the Week honors last week.
Do the Royals typically require top prospects to get 500-550 plate appearances in the upper levels of the minors (defined as Double-A and Triple-A)? Here is how much time other top prospects during the Dayton Moore era played in Double-A and Triple-A before their initial promotion to the big leagues.
Games played in AA/AAA before MLB promotion
|Bobby Witt Jr.||2021||21||564||.290||.361||.575|
There are some exceptions - the rise of Salvador Perez through the system was meteoric, but also fueled in part because of how they valued him defensively. Eric Hosmer also came up very quickly, largely by making a mockery of Triple-A pitching. But for the most part, the Royals have kept their top prospects in the minors for at least 500 plate appearances.
However, you will notice that Pasquantino is older than any other prospect on this list. He is older than Bo Bichette, Andrew Vaughn, Dylan Carlson - or even Royals like MJ Melendez and Bobby Witt Jr., and played at a high level in Division I college baseball. You would think he would be a bit more mature and require less refinement in the upper minors than a young kid out of high school.
His advanced plate discipline would also suggest an easier transition to the big leagues than other players with more raw tools. Pasquantino has already developed a pretty good eye for the zone, an area that many Royals prospects struggle with upon their promotion to the big leagues.
Most of those players also spent very little time in Triple-A. Mike Moustakas played 107 games there, but Billy Butler spent just 57 in Omaha, Eric Hosmer was there for 26 games, and Adalberto Mondesi and Salvador Perez were each there about two weeks before being promoted. Typically, the Royals have not seen much value in facing Triple-A pitchers, instead wanting to challenge their hitters against top prospects in Double-A, although perhaps that has changed.
Picollo also expressed concern about putting too much pressure on Pasquantino to carry the offense.
“We just have to keep in mind, we’ve done this for a long time, young players can come up and certainly help an offense,” he said. “But it’s really hard to expect a young player to come up and carry an offense. We don’t want them to feel like they have to carry an offense.”
With all due respect to Picollo, this is laughable. The Royals bat Bobby Witt Jr., a 21-year old who is expected to carry this franchise, in the middle of their lineup. Rookie catcher MJ Melendez has primarily hit fifth in the lineup. This is not a team that has been shy about asking its rookies to carry the offense.
What about service time manipulation? The Royals don’t really play service time games, and it probably shouldn’t be that big of a concern for a 24-year old first baseman like Pasquantino, who likely isn’t due a huge pay day when he reaches free agency in his 30s. Plus the Super-two arbitration date - which affords some players the chance to reach arbitration after two years - has already passed.
The most likely significant factor is that the Royals don’t want to move on from Carlos Santana. They paid him $17.5 million, and want to get something for their investment, either through production, or a trade return, or both. But Santana has been bad for so long, it is hard to imagine a hot spell for a few weeks will entice a team to trade for him. Santana’s age is not exactly a secret around baseball.
In about three weeks, Pasquantino will hit the magical 500 plate appearances threshold in the upper minors. Perhaps we will see him in a Royals uniform at that point, with Carlos Santana off the roster. But as Alec Lewis wrote at the Athletic, the decision to keep Santana over Pasquantino this long poses serious questions about the direction of this team.