Each weekend, Phillies Nation Editorial Director Tim Kelly will answer reader questions as part of the Phillies Nation Mailbag. Questions can be submitted by tweeting at @PhilliesNation, @TimKellySports or e-mailing your question to tsk@TimKellyMedia.com. Let’s get to this week’s question.
Carlos Santana has started nine of the Phillies last 16 games at third base. Could he play primarily at the hot corner for the Phillies in 2019? – Jeff in Fishtown
Jeff, there’s really two questions here; would the Phillies try to play Carlos Santana at third base primarily in 2019 and should they try to play Carlos Santana at third base primarily in 2019?
It would certainly appear that the Phillies believe that Rhys Hoskins needs to return to his natural position of first base full-time in 2019. General manager Matt Klentak’s decision to sign Santana to a lucrative three-year contract this past offseason forced Hoskins to left field, where he’s graded out as the worst qualified fielding left fielder. He’s posted the lowest defensive WAR of any qualified defender, per FanGraphs. NBC Sports Philadelphia‘s Jim Salisbury reported earlier this month that the Phillies have had internal discussions about potentially trading Santana this offseason to open first base up for Hoskins.
Trading Santana, of course, wouldn’t be because the Phillies aren’t high on the 32-year-old. Though his .232 batting average is a bit lower than the Phillies likely anticipated, his .234 batting average on balls in play – which is 40 points lower than the mark he posted in his final season with the Cleveland Indians – suggests he could see a bounce-back in terms of his batting average in 2019. With the exception of his batting average, Santana’s production has largely been in line with his career averages. He’s homered 23 times, driven in 83 runs and has a .356 on-base percentage, largely thanks to his 105 walks.
So it isn’t surprising, especially given that Maikel Franco has dealt with a neck and shoulder injury recently, that the Phillies have experimented with Santana at third base. Would they prefer to keep his production in the lineup regularly, as opposed to eating a large chunk of the $40 plus million he’s owed between 2019 and 2020 in a trade? You bet.
To be fair to Santana, he’s been pretty serviceable in his limited time at third base in 2018. The former catcher’s strong arm plays at third base. It is, however, fair to wonder how the 210 pound veteran’s speed and range would hold up at third base over the course of a full season.
Lost in this discussion is that in 2014, Santana did play 225.2 innings at third base for Terry Francona’s Indians. In that stretch, he had six errors, -5 defensive runs saved and posted a -4.4 ultimate zone rating. Perhaps most noteworthy is that while playing third base in 2014, Santana made just 12.5 percent of the plays that FanGraphs deemed as 40-60 percent likely to be made. And that was when Santana was 28 – he’ll be 33 early next season.
The Phillies goal in moving Hoskins back to first would be to take the player that’s been their biggest defensive liability statistically and move him to a position that he’s more comfortable at. Make no mistake, Hoskins isn’t going to be a Gold Glove Award winner at first – he’s probably best geared to be a DH – but he should be better at first than in leftfield. But the Phillies are the 29th ranked team in terms of fielding in baseball. Hoskins defensively has struggled, but he’s far from the only one. If the Phillies plan to address their defensive struggles this offseason, moving Santana to third base wouldn’t seem to fix that.
It is worth pointing out that it’s unclear if Franco remains in the Phillies plans past 2018. Depending on the future of Cesar Hernandez, Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford could see time at third base in 2019. And there’s still the looming possibility of potentially signing Manny Machado (probably to play shortstop), which would shake up the Phillies entire infield.
For anyone wondering, Santana hasn’t caught since 2012, nor did he ever grade out well as a catcher. He has some limited experience in both left and right field, though again, if the Phillies goal is to improve their team defense, playing Santana in a corner outfield spot wouldn’t seem to do that. The Phillies would appear to have two realistic options for how to proceed with Santana: either he remains at first base for the bulk of games in 2019 – which would leave Hoskins in left field – or the Phillies trade Santana (probably to an American League team) and allow Hoskins to return to first. The latter seems more likely from here.
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