Following his seventh-straight season of providing the Indians with at least 2 wins above replacement, Carlos Santana is a free agent. He’ll be looking to get paid for his consistency, batting eye and improved defense at first base.
Santana’s signature strength is his fantastic eye at the plate. Since the beginning of the 2011 season (his first full season at the MLB level), no player in the American League has drawn more free passes. His 698 walks during that span lead second-place Jose Bautista by 44 and third-place Mike Trout by 118, while trailing only Joey Votto in all of baseball. Santana also carries elite contact ability: during the 2017 season, his 7.1% swinging strike rate ranked top 30 in the majors, while his 21.4% chase rate was within MLB’s top ten. Thanks to this skill set, Santana was one of just four players in baseball with a walk rate above 13% and a strikeout rate below 15% this past year. The others were Joey Votto, Anthony Rendon and Anthony Rizzo. There are dozens more statistics just like this one, but the point remains the same: Santana is one of the most patient players on the planet.
He can do more than simply take walks, though. Santana’s power is also well above average. He’s socked 168 bombs since the start of 2011; that puts him in baseball’s top 25 during that time period. In his seven full major league seasons, Santana has never hit fewer than 18 homers, and he’s hit as many as 34. While his career .445 slugging percentage and .196 ISO don’t leap off the page, those figures are certainly nothing to scoff at. In fact, that ISO is tied for the 51st-highest mark out of the 203 players who’ve accumulated at least 2,000 plate appearances since Santana’s career began. Make no mistake: Santana is a threat to hit the ball out of the park at any time.
In addition to his offensive skill set, Santana may well be one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. UZR/150 has always been bullish on his work, rating him as being between 4.6 and 5.3 runs above average per 150 games in each of the past three seasons. However, DRS hasn’t painted a pretty picture of his work in the past. In 2017, however, Santana graded out to 10 Defensive Runs Saved; nine full runs better than his previous career high at first.
Although the longtime Cleveland Indian doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses, his true achilles heel lies in his batted ball profile. Although Santana is a switch-hitter, is tendency to pull the ball more than half the time makes him incredibly easy for opposing infields to shift against. Santana’s pull percentage has been greater than 50% in all but one season of his career; the remaining season was 2012, during which his pull rate was 48.1%. All told, Santana’s career pull rate is a whopping 52.9%. Since Santana came into the league, only Mark Teixiera and Chris Young have higher pull rates among hitters with at least 2000 plate appearances. Furthermore, Santana’s batting average on ground balls hit to the pull side of the infield has never been higher than .145 in any season of his career. Santana’s lack of offensive versatility has led to prolonged slumps throughout his career. Opposing teams can greatly improve their pitching performance against him by following a simple formula: pitch him inside, generate ground balls and deploy an extreme pull shift.
Other than his pull penchant, however, Santana doesn’t really have much in the way of weaknesses. One small criticism of his hitting ability is that he’s performed poorly against knuckle curveballs; Santana’s career weighted runs created against that particular pitch is -2.36, which ranks 222nd of 268 players during the course of his major league career. However, the pitch is so rare that it’s hard to imagine that will affect his value on the free agent market.
One could say that while Santana is an above average hitter, he’s merely average among first basemen. While his consistency is impressive, it’s not like he’s been consistently a stud. During his tenure as a first base/DH type, Santana has never ranked higher than ninth in fWAR among first basemen. In essence, he’s a great hitter, but not a spectacular hitter relative to his position on the field.
The Los Angeles Dodgers originally signed Santana out of the Dominican Republic back in 2006. In 2008, the Indians acquired him in the Casey Blake trade.
Though he plays first base now, Santana’s major-league debut was as a catcher, a position he played in the majority of games until 2014. After a brief experiment at third base that year, Santana became a full-time first baseman/designated hitter and hasn’t been behind the plate for a single inning during the past three seasons. He’s never worn a major league uniform for any team but the Indians, but officially became a free agent when he rejected Cleveland’s qualifying offer earlier this winter.
The fact that he’s limited to first base will take many NL teams out of the running for Santana, shortening his list of suitors. The crowded free agent first base market this year could further drive down his value; if that occurs, though, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs sees potential for Santana to rate as a notable bargain. The Indians have already made him a contract offer, while the Padres and Rangers have also shown interest. Some other potential suitors include the Red Sox, A’s and Rockies.
Though MLBTR initially predicted that Santana would sign a three-year, $45MM contract with the Indians, the two sides weren’t able to work out a deal before Santana rejected their qualifying offer. The initial market for him seems fairly strong, and with his relative youth so many teams already in the mix, the original prediction now appears to be on the low side. Though the presence of Eric Hosmer and Logan Morrison on the market could limit his earning power, I’m guessing Santana will get a four-year deal worth no less than $60MM.