It was recently announced that the Phillies signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million deal with a $17.5 million club option for a fourth year. One of the offseason’s better free agents is now off the market, and to a surprise team, no less.
Santana’s mastery of the strike zone is one of the most underrated in the game. We all think of Joey Votto when it comes to command of the strike zone, but Santana is not far from that. He does not have the prodigious offense that usually comes with such a skilled batting eye, but he does have a skill that such players tend not to have: high contact rates. He barely strikes out more than he walks. One would think that such a player would have a better career wOBA than .353, but that is still quite good.
One of the strangest things about Santana is that he is a low-BABIP hitter. Again, one would think that a hitter of his skill would have a high career BABIP. Santana’s sits at .270. Since his debut year in 2010, Santana’s BABIP is the fourth-worst in baseball among hitters with at least 4,000 PA. The three that are worse than him: Edwin Encarnación, Albert Pujols, and José Bautista. Those three are/were hard-hitters. They are also very slow, which is the likely explanation for their low BABIPs.
Santana will bring to the Phillies a skill that they very much need: OBP. He has a career .365 OBP that is remarkably consistent from year to year. The Phillies’ .315 OBP last season was tied with the Angels for seventh-worst in the majors. And if there were an OBP+ stat, they would probably rank even worse because they play in one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the game.
This contract for a hitter of Santana’s caliber going into his age-32 season is a fair deal, but it seems to be an odd fit for the Phillies. For one, they obviously have no DH, which is probably the best place to put him. The defensive metrics say that he is fine at first base, but will that continue to be the case over the next three years?
It also creates a logjam because he will be displacing Rhys Hoskins, a rookie who set the league on fire with his debut in August. He hit a staggering .259/.396/.618 with 18 HR and a 17.5 BB%, albeit in only 212 PA. Hoskins will very likely regress — though that will likely be in the power department, seeing as he had a career .386 OBP in the minors — but he needs to play every day.
Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia reported that Hoskins will be moved to left field. This means that Aaron Altherr will likely be the primary right fielder, leaving Nick Williams as the odd man out. Altherr was a surprised breakout in 2017, hitting .272/.340/.516 over 107 games. Williams performed well in his debut with a line of .288/.338/.473 over half a season. Unfortunately, he is a prime regression candidate given his poor plate discipline and .375 BABIP. It would help if either he or Altherr could play center field, but they can’t. Though he took a step backward in 2017, Odúbel Herrera is still the best candidate for center.
The problem is whether Santana will be of any use to the Phillies. Sure, they got a good player at a fair price, one who can be penciled in for 3-4 WAR in 2018 and perhaps 2019. But will those extra wins make any difference in the next three to four years? Even considering that is an unlikely pace for a player who will be 32 in April? The Phillies were expected to improve over their 71-win 2016 season, but they were five wins worse even with breakouts from Hoskins, Altherr, and Aaron Nola.
The Phillies need to improve by at least 20 wins to be competitive in the NL. That is certainly not going to happen in 2018, and it’s probably not going to happen in 2019, either. So that’s a total of $40 million that the Phillies will be paying Santana to not make the playoffs and hurt their draft position. That’s a conservative estimate, too, because it is entirely possible that the Phillies will not make the playoffs during the entirety of Santana’s contract.
This is the type of move that a team makes when they are just one or two pieces away from contending, not when coming off a 66-win season. Perhaps this acquisition will make more sense in the future, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense by itself. The team will have to do an exemplary job in the trade market and in next year’s historically good free agent class for this signing to be worthwhile. The Phillies will have plenty of money to spend, but will Bryce Harper or Manny Machado want to sign with a team that might end up finishing 2018 with ~70 wins?
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.