Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been frenetically amassing young talent this offseason. Along the way, he’s also received several veterans. We’ve already discussed Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, who came over in a trade with the New York Mets. Another pickup is first baseman Carlos Santana; a player I find intriguing.
Dipoto acquired Santana, along with shortstop J.P. Crawford, in yesterday’s deal sending shortstop Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio, and James Pazos to the Philadelphia Phillies. For the Mariners, Crawford is the long-term key to the deal. But Santana immediately helps the team.
Now, I’m not suggesting Santana is an All-Star next season; he’s never been one. But his bat should provide needed punch to a lineup that’s lost Segura, Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, and Denard Span. I suspect some of you may not share my optimism.
That’s understandable. A first baseman with a .229 batting average and an OPS below the league average for his position doesn’t usually spur enthusiasm. But you may feel differently after we discuss the terrible start to Santana’s new beginning in Philadelphia.
A year ago, Santana signed as a free agent with the Phillies after spending his first eight seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately, he got off to a horrendous start, which didn’t endear him to Philly fans.
In 28 games and 122 plate appearances during April, Santana slashed .153/.295/.276 with two home runs. Although batting average is a bad way to gauge offensive prowess, being last can’t be good. His .153 average was worst among 139 players with 100-plus plate appearances. Moreover, he was bottom-15 in wRC+ and OPS.
Despite the rough start, one metric suggested Santana could salvage his debut campaign in Philadelphia – expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). The STATCAST product accounts for quality of contact (exit velocity, launch angle) and outcomes not requiring defense (strikeouts and walks).
Santana’s .374 xwOBA in April ranked 39th among the 139 hitters previously mentioned tying him with Carlos Correa (the pre-injury version) and just ahead of Canó (.372). It turns out xwOBA was a good predictor with Santana’s offensive production rebounding once the calendar turned to May.
A New Beginning
The following illustrates Santana’s post-April stat line, which is nearly identical to his career numbers. Also included, each stat’s MLB ranking and where it would’ve placed on the Mariners during that span.
There’s another aspect of Santana’s game worth mentioning; he does a good job of controlling the zone.
Santana’s 12.9% strikeout rate was tenth lowest in MLB. Despite a bad April, the native of the Dominican Republic finished with the third highest walk total (110) in MLB behind two familiar names — Bryce Harper (130) and Mike Trout (122).
Another cool fact about Santana’s ability to earn free passes; he had more walks (110) than strikeouts (93). The only other players with 500-plus plate appearances to accomplish the feat were Joey Votto, Alex Bregman, and Jose Ramirez. Bregman and Ramirez finished top-5 in AL MVP last season and Votto was the NL MVP runner-up in 2017.
To be clear; I’m not expecting Santana to be an MVP candidate. However, his on-base skills should help a Mariners team that ranked in the bottom-half of the AL in OBP and walks last season.
Best Mariners First Baseman Since…
Ryon Healy was the main man last season, but his OBP was well below average and his overall production uneven. Youngster Dan Vogelbach hasn’t received an opportunity to prove he can perform in the majors.
With typical production, Santana easily becomes Seattle’s offensive first baseman since 2009 (Russell Branyan). Since 2001, only three players have posted a better OPS in a season than his .766 with Philadelphia this year – Richie Sexson, John Olerud, and Branyan. That’s assuming he begins the 2019 season with the Mariners.
Potential Trade Chip
As we’ve already noted, Dipoto is aggressively reshaping his organization meaning the new veterans aren’t part of the Mariners’ long-term plans. Therefore, the club could deal any of these players before the start of the season or at the trade deadline.
Bruce and Swarzak are coming off disappointing seasons, so Dipoto may give them a chance to rebuild their value with a strong start next season. However, Santana is a solid offensive weapon at a position with a weak free agent class. Here are the top free agents with first base experience.
It’s an uninspiring list with the possible exception of Justin Bour, recently non-tendered by the Phillies. Yet, there are several potential contenders in need of an upgrade at first base.
Tampa Bay Rays first basemen combined for a .728 OPS last season, which is well below the .771 league-average for the position. That was with their best hitting first baseman, C.J. Cron, who the club waived last month.
Santana will earn over $41 million over the next two seasons, which may be too steep for budget-conscious Rays to absorb. Still, Dipoto found a way to move Canó’s hefty contract and has shown a knack for working out deals with his go-to trade partners in Tampa Bay.
The Colorado Rockies have Ryan McMahon, but he’s yet to perform. Last season Colorado yielded a .719 OPS from their first basemen. Perhaps the Rockies would prefer to stick with the 23-year-old McMahon, but think about how Santana’s bat would play in mile-high Coors Field.
Another recent Dipoto trade partner could use an upgrade at first base too. The New York Yankees currently have Luke Voit and Greg Bird on their 40-man roster. Voit performed well after joining the Yankees in July, but a proven commodity like Santana would fit well on a team trying to overtake the World Series champion Red Sox.
It’s possible the Mariners ultimately decide to retain Santana or deal him sometime after the start of next season. If he does remain, it’s worth noting the roster is cluttered with first base types – Santana, Healy, Vogelbach, and Bruce.
Then again, Jerry Dipoto is adept at uncluttering rosters.