Think what you may about the three-year/$60 million contract that the Philadelphia Phillies signed Carlos Santana to this past offseason. His first season with the Phillies has been disappointing, though we can debate just how disappointing the former Cleveland Indian has been in 2018 and why exactly that is. One thing that increasingly isn’t up for debate is that one of the side-effects of the Santana signing – Rhys Hoskins playing left field, rather than his natural position of first base – has been unsuccessful.
In the top of the fourth inning of Monday evening’s loss to the Washington Nationals, Zach Eflin had already allowed the Nationals to regain the lead in a game the Phillies had tied at two in the previous half-inning. Still, Eflin had the chance to escape the inning with the Phillies down just 3-2. He got Trea Turner to hit a fly ball to left field. Off-the-bat, it appeared Eflin was going to strand runners on second and third. Turner even looked disappointed coming out of the batter’s box. But instead of starting in on a ball that was hit to shallow left field, Hoskins’ first couple steps were back towards the left field fence. He wasn’t able to recover and the ball dropped in front of him, allowing the Nationals to tack on another run.
This wasn’t a one-time event for Hoskins, who has admirably tried to play left field on a full-time basis for the betterment of the team. He’s been worth -19 defensive runs saved in 2018. He has a -10.6 ultimate zone rating. FanGraphs says that by a comfortable margin, he’s been the worst fielding left fielder in baseball in 2018. In fact, his -15.7 defensive WAR is the worst mark for any qualified fielder at any position in 2018.
Different baseball minds value defensive metrics to different degrees, but it’s clear that the Hoskins experiment in left field hasn’t panned out well. There was some thought that if the Phillies made the playoffs two times with Pat Burrell in left field, they could do so with Hoskins in left as well. And perhaps they will, but it will really be in spite of him being in left field, because Hoskins has graded out on par with Burrell’s worst years in the outfield. Frankly, even at his peak, Burrell probably should have been playing either first base or DHing for an American League team.
A year after posting a 2.0 bWAR in under two months at the major league level, Hoskins has just a 0.8 bWAR to show for his first full major league season. But his offense is about on par with what was expected of him: he’s slashing .257/.366/.505 with an .870 OPS, 27 home runs, 82 RBIs and 73 walks. There are those that would suggest bWAR has some flaws in how it is calculated, but Hoskins doesn’t have a 0.8 bWAR because of his offense – per Baseball Reference he has a 3.0 offensive WAR. He has a 0.8 bWAR because Baseball Reference says his defensive WAR has been -2.8. (The formula isn’t as simple as combining the two numbers. You can read an in-depth explanation of how bWAR is calculated here, but fielding runs are one of six weighted factors in bWAR, which obviously hasn’t helped Hoskins.)
Santana is under contract for two more seasons to play first base. The Phillies acquired Justin Bour – who really only plays first base – in an August waiver trade with the Miami Marlins. But it’s becoming more and more clear that Hoskins – defensively, at least – is in the mold of Burrell. In a perfect world, Hoskins would be a DH, but the Phillies play in the National League, so that’s not an option. So despite the fact that he would be a defensive downgrade from Santana at first, it doesn’t feel like Hoskins can spend two more seasons in left field.
So one task for general manager Matt Klentak in what’s expected to be one of the most important offseasons in franchise history may be to find a way to get Hoskins back to playing first base in 2019. In an offseason where Klentak may have to ask managing partner John Middleton to commit a record number of dollars to Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, he also may have to ask him to eat much of the $40 plus million Santana is owed over the next two seasons. Sunk cost probably isn’t the correct way to look at things because there’s reason to believe Santana could bounce-back in 2019. Even in a year where he’s disappointed offensively, Santana has walked 92 times, the most a Phillie has walked since the aforementioned Burrell walked 102 times in 2008. But as long as Santana is at first base, Hoskins will be in left field. And it’s hard to imagine Santana remaining on the team if Hoskins is primarily playing first base. So eating money to facilitate a trade may be their best way to move forward at this juncture.
It’s unclear how the Phillies plan to address Hoskins after the 2018 season. The front-office showed through a large dollar amount how much they value Santana and manager Gabe Kapler seems to as well, as Hoskins often goes to the bench, rather than replacing Santana at first, when a defensive replacement is brought in late in games to play left field. The organization clearly values walks as well, and it’s possible that on top of Santana, the Phillies could trade Cesar Hernandez – who has led the team in walks three consecutive years – this offseason. Navigating through this offseason won’t be simple for Klentak and the Phillies, but it could be an offseason that defines this era of Phillies baseball.
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