1. Carlos Santana is a really good hitter
This is a point that is hard to debate, although there are quite a few casual fans and patrons of old school benchmarks who will try to make that argument. They will point at his career .249 batting average and the fact that he has never registered more than 87 RBI in a single season as reasons that he is a less than exciting hitter. But Santana has also posted an on-base percentage more than 100 points higher than his batting average (.365, compared to .249). His career wRC+ indicates that his offensive has been 23% better than the average league hitter. Santana also has the type of swing and approach that it appears would be enhanced by playing his home games in Citizens Bank Park as opposed to playing in Progressive Field. While CBP is a little longer down the lines, it's much more hitter friendly in the gaps and to straight-away center. From a quick search at his fly balls in his home park over the past three seasons, you can estimate that Santana stands to gain 3-5 HR/season by hitting in CBP. The fact that he can hit from both sides of the plate and can be moved around in the batting order adds to his value in a lineup that is not likely to be set in stone for long.
Perhaps even more impressive, his career BB% of 15 and K% of 17 demonstrate that he is able to consistently see pitches and put together quality at-bats. Over the course of the past three seasons (2015-2017), only three players have seen more pitches than Santana: Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Brian Dozier.
Quality at bats have been a serious deficiency for the Phillies over the past several seasons. As a team, they have not finished higher than 24th out of 30 in both on-base percentage and wRC+ during each of the last five campaigns. The cumulative .305 OBA and 86 wRC+ they posted during this stretch were bad enough to rank as next-to-last and last in the Majors respectively. Last offseason, former Phillies manager Pete Mackanin implored management to go out and try to obtain a few professional hitters before the 2017 season. The outcome of this plea returned the signings of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, two moves that turned in very mixed results. Adding Carlos Santana before 2018 certainly goes a long way to bringing in the type of professional hitter that Mackanin so pined after: a switch-hitter who has a consistent track record of production.
2. The Phillies have not had a good track record at 1st base for most of this decade
This is a fact that is probably overlooked by most fans both inside and outside of the Philadelphia market, but one that is sadly true. Since fans painfully watched Ryan Howard crumpled in a heap at home plate due to a torn achilles tendon to end the 2011 season, Phillies 1st basemen have been the 4th worst in MLB. During this stretch, they have put up a below replacement level -0.9 WAR only topping the Mariners, Rockies, and Marlins, three teams with well known recent deficiencies at the position. Tommy Joseph came out of the gate slowly in 2017 and never recovered his season, finding himself at or near the bottom in terms of offensive and defensive production among first basemen in both leagues. His .240/.289/.432 slash line led him to produce at 15% below league average, and his IFFB% came dangerously close to eclipsing his LD% (18.1% to 19.2%). And while Rhys Hoskins could have been the guy to lead Phillies 1st basemen back to prominence, the Phillies had other ideas because...
3. Past results are no guarantee of future production
The fact that Hoskins was able to appear serviceable with limited exposure to left field, despite the small sample size, makes repeating the experiment on a larger scale palatable. They will recommence in March, this time having the added benefit of the offseason to try and prepare himself to handle the relatively easy pastures of left in South Philadelphia. If the Phillies played in a ballpark that more resembled the likes of Wrigley or AT&T Park, chances are that Hoskins would have remained at first and Santana would have taken his talents to another organization.
However, this creates a new complication: trying to fit four starting-caliber outfielders into three spots. The trio of Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams endured their fair share of ups-and-downs during the course of the 2017 season. But Nick Williams', who appeared to be nearly be a lost cause after a disappointing full season in AAA in 2016, was able to find just enough contact and just enough plate discipline to put up a 110 wRC+ in 343 PA with the big club while flashing moderate power. But despite great bat speed, bat control, and hand-eye capabilities, Williams still has a very aggressive approach at the plate: one that former hitting coach Matt Stairs was able to help reign in. Stairs has since departed to try and improve the hitting fortunes of San Diego, and it will be up to new hitting coaches John Mallee and Pedro Guerrero to make sure Williams builds on the strides that he made last season. If Williams relapses, returning to the lost cause days of 2016, he may find himself a non-factor at the end of the bench, or another footnote back in Lehigh Valley.
Meanwhile after being severly hampered by a Spring Training wrist injury in 2016, Aaron Altherr was able to show flashes of the promise that he had hinted at during his 2015 call-up. Altherr, at 6'5” is long and lean and possesses the type of athleticism that scouts and analysts often droll over. Both Williams and Altherr are immensely talented in their own right and both can play all three outfield postions. At the same time, they are still both relatively unproven commodities that will have to show that the successes they were able to accomplish in 2017 were no fluke. Additionally, neither one of them is a threat to take any serious time from Herrera in center (as long as he remains on the roster), and with Hoskins set to patrol the left both will have to battle to earn a majority of their innings in right. It is even not a guarantee that Hoskins will be the savior that the fanbase envisioned after his tremendous 50-game debut in 2017, although his minor league career indicates that he is the type of polished hitter that should see continued success in the big leagues.
4. Carlos Santana may turn into one of the great value signings of the offseason
As I mentioned at the beginning, 3/$60MM seems like a lot of money for a team to invest when they already possesses a 1st baseman. But when you compare this with the other prime free agents on the market this offseason, it has the chance to be the one that is the least likely to end up underwater. J.D. Martinez is a tremendous hitter who would probably hit home runs by the dozens in Citizens Bank Park. But after the season he was able to compile between he’s likely going to command somewhere near $25-$30MM per year for upwards of 5-6 years. And this is for an outfielder who is not very good at playing in the outfield: his defense ranks dead last among right fielders with qualified innings, and it’s not even close.
You could kick the tires on Eric Hosmer, who is coming off his best season in the Majors and who both the Royals and the Padres covet immensely. But Hosmer will not come cheap: initial reports have the Royals and Padres both possibly offering him deals in excess of 7 years/$140+MM, which I think is quite possibly too much money for a player who has his slightly troubling track record. During his career, he has vacillated between being worth 3-4 WAR per season, or being worth absolutely nothing. If you look at his individual seasons (chronologically), he has accumulated WAR values of 1.0, -1.7, 3.2, 0.0, 3.5, -0.1, and 4.1. That’s not very encouraging. Also, while he has managed to win four Gold Glove awards in his seven seasons, there are not too many metrics that rate him as being a very good defensive first baseman. In 2017 he ranked right in the middle of the pack among qualified 1st basemen (21 in total) in both UZR and UZR/150, was worth -7 defensive runs saved, and was last in out-of-zone plays made. Even taking multiple seasons into account, Hosmer rates way down the list, putting up defensive values equivalent to the likes of Logan Morrison and Jose Abreu. By contrast, Carlos Santana finished with the 3rd best UZR, 4th best UZR/150, and was worth 10 defensive runs saved. Which leads to another point you can make about Santana: his defensive metrics stand up well for themselves when compared to his peers at first.
Lorenzo Cain and Michael Brantley are also still available. Brantley could probably be signed at a relative bargain: MLB Trade Rumors offered a prediction of 2/$20MM for his services. But after only playing in 101 games the last two seasons due to shoulder and ankle injuries, his health is and would continue to be a major question mark. Lorenzo Cain meanwhile would probably command close to if not the same annual value as Santana at about $20MM per year, and he would likely command more years. It becomes an argument of who you would rather give that money to: a Carlos Santana or a Lorenzo Cain. Both are entering their age-32 seasons, but the Phillies already have a similar player in Odubel Herrera, who will be almost 6-years younger than Cain once the season begins. Signing Cain creates the same outfield conundrum that having Santana on your roster does, but the latter probably gives you more overall roster flexibility and has a longer track record of offensive consistency. Looking at the bigger picture, there is also the opinion that you need to prove you are willing to spend money on quality players in order to help attract future free agents to your team. Early indications are that the 2018-2019 free agent class could end up being a prodigious one, and if the Phillies want to compete for some of the top names it will help to show that they are willing to commit time and money to players of their ilk.
5. The level of production from the Phillies infield gets a big boost
The Phillies traded longtime infield stalwart Freddy Galvis to San Diego to make room for former 1st-round pick JP Crawford. Galvis, while a strong and flashy defender, has never been much of a factor on offense outside of his ability to pop the occasional long ball. His .309 OBP in 2017 was the highest of his career so far, and is probably very near if not already at his ceiling. Even despite hitting 32 HR over the last two seasons, he at best can only provide offense at 15-20% below the league average. The scouting reports on Crawford, while they are a little bit mixed as a hitter, still suggest that he will outperform Galvis, and many scouts and talent evaluators can foresee him competing for a gold glove sometime in the future. So what do you get when you swap out the combined offensive production of Galvis and Joseph with the anticipated production of Santana and Crawford? A major upgrade across the board.
While the Phillies did not have to dedicate very many resources to employ the services of Joseph and Galvis in 2017, combined their production was the equivalent of paying nearly $9.9M per win above replacement. If the general cost of a win is somewhere in the vicinity of $8MM per, then their efforts ultimately were no bargain. Meanwhile, based on their Steamer predicted projections and approximate salaries for 2018, the duo of Crawford and Santana could end up being worth 3.8 WAR. That works out to about $4M per WAR. I actually believe that Steamer underestimates Santana just a bit, despite the fact that he is moving to a new league and has a whole new collection of pitchers to adapt to. I personally have him being worth approximately 3.5 WAR for this coming season, where I think that Crawford will be worth 1.5-2.0 if he is able to perform at a level comparable to what he did the second half of 2017. Regardless of salary implications, there is a very real chance that being able to write Santana and Crawford into your lineup everyday could produce anywhere from 3-5 additional WAR than the duo of Tommy Joseph and Freddy Galvis would.
There are probably at least a dozen other reasons that I could expound on as to why I believe Carlos Santana will be a good fit in South Philadelphia. There are also at least a dozen reasons that the move is confusing at best. As I see it, the markers are all there for Santana to succeed as one of the anchors of the Phillies lineup, and for the rest of the team to reap the residual benefits. Regardless of which side of the debate you stand with, the truth is that the Phillies were able to convince one of the top-3 hitters available this offseason to sign with them, setting their course directly towards the Wild Card and Division title. It may take a few seasons to get there, but it's a move in the right direction. And when all is said and done, it will be up to Santana to prove to both the fanbase and the front office whether or not signing him was the correct next step for the franchise.
Spanning an entire continent, lifelong fans Chris Kubak and Tom Baird take you on a magical, sabermetrically enhanced journey through Major League Baseball.