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.
Who will be the Phillies Opening Day first baseman and third baseman in 2019? – Kevin Lajoie (@klajoie316)
At this juncture, I feel fairly confident in predicting that on Opening Day 2019, Rhys Hoskins will be the first baseman and Carlos Santana will be the third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Though Hoskins made an admirable attempt to adjust to left field in 2018, it just didn’t work out. He had -24 defensive runs saved in left field in 2018, per FanGraphs. His -18.1 defensive WAR was the second worst mark that any qualified fielder posted. As Matt Gelb of The Athletic noted, part of Hoskins’ decision to hire super agent Scott Boras hinged on him having the resources to help Hoskins get more prepared to play in the outfield. And you can bet there will be some games in which Hoskins plays in left in 2019. But in an explosive season-ending interview with Angelo Cataldi of SportsRadio 94 WIP, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler sounded committed to allowing Hoskins to return to his natural position next season.
For Hoskins to play first base, Carlos Santana would have to play elsewhere. That elsewhere could be another team, as Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported in September that the Phillies have internally pondered trading the 32-year-old just one offseason after signing him to a lucrative free-agent contract. However, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports suggested a trade was unlikely shortly thereafter. So if all parties involved appear to think that Hoskins should return to first base in 2019, but the Phillies are unlikely to trade Santana, that only leaves one spot for Santana.
Kapler penciled Santana into his lineup as his starting third baseman 16 times in the final month of the season. While admitting that Santana may not be the Phillies best option at third base, Kapler said at the conclusion of the season that Santana is “an option” at third base moving forward. To his credit, Santana did have one defensive run saved in the extremely small sample size of 119.0 innings at third base in 2018. As a former catcher, Santana certainly has the arm to play at third base.
Lost in this discussion, though, 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 April.
At the same time, while the Phillies understand upgrading their defense has to be a priority this offseason, they like Santana’s offensive approach. He walked 110 times, the most a Phillie has walked since Pat Burrell walked 114 times in 2007. He homered 24 times and drove in 86 runs. Yes, his .229 batting average was lower than the Phillies expected when they signed him to a three-year/$60 million deal last offseason. At the same time, Santana’s batting average on balls in play was .231, 43 points lower than the mark he posted in 2017 and 34 points lower than his career average. Santana will never compete for a batting title, but the Phillies didn’t sign him with that expectation. It’s reasonable to think that in a second year with the Phillies, Santana could see a 15-20 point increase in his batting average.
The other thing worth considering is that one way or another, the Phillies will likely be paying Santana a hefty sum in 2019. If he’s still with the team, he’ll make $20.3 million. If he’s traded, the Phillies likely will have to absorb some of the $40 plus million he’s owed over the next two seasons. So if the Phillies are going to pay him either way, general manager Matt Klentak would probably prefer he plays for the Phillies. Of course, that doesn’t change concerns over how he would fare at third base on a regular basis, or how the team’s defense would continue to plague them if Santana remained at first, keeping Hoskins in left field.
If the Phillies carry Santana as their primary third baseman in 2019, it would likely mean they part with Maikel Franco this offseason. Despite hitting .330 with seven home runs in July, it’s still not entirely clear what Franco is. Could his month of July have been a sign that he still has a chance to fulfill the MVP potential that former hitting coach Matt Stairs once said he had? Sure. He may also be a player that has one or two star caliber months every season, but is unable to sustain that type of production (or anything close to it) throughout the course of a full season. Franco is still just 26, so if the Phillies trade Franco, they would be running the risk that things click for him elsewhere after they stuck through some of the leaner years of his development. But it just feels like that’s a risk they may be ready to take.
Short of Manny Machado accepting a move back to third base, it feels unlikely that the Phillies will inject an external option into this equation. There was speculation (and some credible reports) about the Phillies interest in Adrian Beltre, Mike Moustakas and Josh Donaldson this summer. All three will be free-agents this offseason. Beltre seems likely to either return to the Texas Rangers or retire. It’s unclear if Moustakas would move the needle so much that he would be worth giving up on Franco for. Donaldson, a former American League MVP, has struggled to stay on the field the past two seasons. Depending on how the Phillies offseason shakes out, the two most likely options to push Santana for playing time at third base could come internally, in the forms of Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford.
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