We didn’t see it coming before the Winter Meetings, but now the Phils have Carlos Santana on a three-year, $60 million contract with a team option for 2021 at $17.5 million.
Santana had spent his entire career with the Indians; last season he hit .259/.363/.455 with 23 home runs, 37 doubles and three triples in 571 plate appearances. He’s a 31-year-old switch hitter who will be 32 for much of the 2018 season.
How does this work for the Phillies? Let’s go through what Santana brings to the Phillies, and how he changes the team.
On the field
Let’s start with defense, because this helps us understand what will come next. Here’s how many innings Santana has spent in positions across the diamond over the last three seasons:
- 2017 – 1225.2 inn
- 2016 – 556.2 inn
- 2015 – 1157 inn
- 2017 – 53 inn
- 2016 – 0 inn
- 2015 – 0 inn
From 2010-13, Santana spent the majority of his innings behind the plate, but he shifted to first base in 2014. He also played 225 innings of third base that season, while also taking a few turns as designated hitter. In 2016 Santana primarily was the DH for Cleveland, with Mike Napoli starting the majority of games at first base.
While he has light experience in the outfield, catching and at third, Santana should be the primary first baseman for the Phillies. He finally proved a solid player at first in 2017, according to the defensive runs saved metric, where he scored a +10. He made more than 97 percent of all routine plays there, plus more than 91 percent of all likely plays there. He’ll make tough plays about 10 percent of the time.
Everywhere else he’s typically been a negative.
The Phillies aren’t necessarily paying for defense with Santana, but even if he regresses slightly at first base next season, he should be decent there. The point here is that Santana should be the first baseman, with Rhys Hoskins (if he stays in Philadelphia) moving to left field.
With Hoskins moving to left field, the outfield jams up as both Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr are likely to be penciled in at right field. This means one of them or Odubel Herrera could be included in a future trade this offseason. But the Phils could also keep the outfield situation static.
If the Phillies don’t move any outfielder, they wouldn’t need to dip into the market for a fourth outfielder. They can also rotate the four main outfielders pretty well, as Herrera, Altherr and Williams can all hang at all three positions. It could create a platoon of Altherr and Williams in right field; here are their opposite-handed splits last season:
- Altherr vs LHP – .239/.325/.505, .266 ISO, .228 BABIP, 17.9 K%, 11.4 BB%
- Williams vs RHP – .293/.340/.498, .205 ISO, .375 BABIP, 28 K%, 6 BB%
Despite the average, Altherr was pretty good against lefties, while Williams’ 2017 was somewhat of a smoke-and-mirrors show, though the OBP is decent. Together they’d make at least a league average outfielder.
Is that perfect? No, but it gives the front office another year to gauge these two. That said, plenty of reporters seem to believe another move is coming.
At the plate
The Phillies are paying for Santana’s hitting prowess; though more accurately, it’s what he does during the plate appearance that matters most. Since moving full-time in 2011, here is Santana’s on-base percentage, year by year: .351, .365, .377, .365, .357, .366, .363. Since 2011, here are the Phillies (min. 400 PA) who have, at least once, finished with an OBP above Santana’s career OBP of .365: Cesar Hernandez (2), Carlos Ruiz (2), Chase Utley (1).
Over the last three seasons, Santana is sixth-best in baseball in percentage of swings outside the strike zone (20.8%), seventh-best in baseball in walk percentage (14.6%), and fifth-best in walks per strikeouts (0.94). He’s one of the most disciplined hitters of this era; only Joey Votto is clearly more impressive over the length of a career.
Patience is something the Phillies have lacked in recent years – the team ranked 25th in baseball in walks to strikeouts at 0.35. Ironically, first place went to Santana’s Indians (0.52).
With a career .196 ISO, Santana is a decent power hitter (his ISO matched that number in 2017 and ranked 65th in MLB); he should on a good offense be regarded as a fourth power option. On this Phillies team he starts the year as the second option after Hoskins. More than anything he provides security for Hoskins and an established veteran presence to lighten the load off others like Williams and Maikel Franco.
The hope is that one of those hitters (or Altherr or Alfaro) emerges as a better power threat than Santana. Then, in the 2018 offseason, the Phils find the final major power option (like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper).
Also, as a switch hitter he provides flexibility at the plate. In 2017 he hit .262/.368/.476 with a .214 ISO against righties (as a lefty) and .255/.354/.423 with a .168 ISO against lefties (as a righty). For his career he’s been more powerful from the left side, with more strikeouts, but he keeps a steady walk rate regardless of the side.
Finally, Santana led off quite a bit in Terry Francona’s lineup.; don’t put it past Gabe Kapler to do something similar in 2018. At the very least, look for Santana to be at the top third of the lineup, as the Phils would love to give him plenty of plate appearances.
In the clubhouse
From all reports Santana is a good person in the clubhouse, though quieter than the typical leader. Still, he’s been to a World Series and comes from a well-run organization in Cleveland. Plus the Dominican is in a way supplanting the just-departed Freddy Galvis as the veteran Latino player in the clubhouse. Considering the team’s growing Latino contingent, it’s a good fit.
The Phillies are looking to spend as they grow, so don’t for a second think this contract changes anything for owner John Middleton. One consideration to note is because Santana rejected the Indians’ qualifying offer, the Phils will lose their second round draft pick in 2018.
But the Phils also traded Rule 5 pick Nick Burdi to Pittsburgh for international slot money. Thus they look to be more aggressive there than at the top of the 2018 first-year player draft.
So, what’s the verdict?
This move is somewhat symbolic. It’s the first big free-agent signing the Phillies have made in years. It shows the team believes in its young players enough to hand them an established veteran like Santana.
Does it work? If Santana stays healthy (he has always been healthy) and keeps a high OBP and provides some power, it’s a win. It means more players on base for Hoskins and the other young hitters.
This isn’t the big “fill-in-the-blank” move Matt Klentak has been talking about. That move is going to be a Machado, Harper, or something of that scope. But this boosts the offense, keeps the clubhouse strong and bets that the present makes for a good future.
That last part, and not the financial commitment, is the biggest risk of this deal. If young players falter and the Phils flail around in mediocrity through 2020, they’ll have wasted a perfectly good ballplayer in Carlos Santana. The Phillies think that won’t be the case. We’ll see.