The Philadelphia Phillies have agreed to a contract with free-agent first baseman Carlos Santana, and while at first glance it might seem like an awkward fit on a team that had 2017 rookie star Rhys Hoskins penciled in at first base, it’s actually a clever and creative move by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak.
Quick thoughts on the signing and the overall state of the Phillies:
1. First off, at three years and $60 million, it’s not overpaying, and limiting the deal to three years means there’s little chance of it blowing up on the back end. Santana owns a career .365 OBP, so he brings some much-needed on-base ability to the Phillies lineup. The deal takes him through his age 32-34 seasons, and while Santana’s home run production has been inconsistent through the years -- 27 in 2014, 19 in 2015, 34 in 2016, 23 in 2017 -- we know he will draw his walks. The Phillies were 11th in the NL in walks and 13th in OBP in 2017, so they need a hitter like this to help anchor the middle of the lineup.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona also praised Santana’s defense the other day, and the metrics suggest Santana was very good there in 2017, with 10 defensive runs saved. UZR had him at 4.8 runs, third place among all first basemen. Even if those numbers regress a bit, it seems pretty clear Santana won’t be a defensive liability. He’s not a DH masquerading as a first baseman.
Santana also could benefit from the move to Citizens Bank Park. Progressive Field is basically home run neutral, but Citizens Bank ranked as the easiest home run park in the majors in 2017 -- even more so than Yankee Stadium. Santana has been worth 3.0 and 3.4 WAR the past two seasons. Frankly, I’d much rather have Santana on a low-risk $60 million deal than Eric Hosmer on a high-risk $150 million deal (or whatever he ends up signing for).
2. It makes sense for the Phillies to spend some money. The best thing the Phillies have going for them these days is they had pared their payroll to nothing. Entering the offseason, the only player signed for 2018 was outfielder Odubel Herrera (who is signed through 2021). A big-market team with enormous payroll flexibility is a wonderful thing. They’ve added Santana along with relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, both of them on two-year contracts. Those two didn’t break the bank, and they double as potential trade bait at midseason.
Yes, the Phillies could have hoarded that money until next year’s free-agent class and go all-in on Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Andrew Miller and everyone else. The only problem with that strategy is that you don’t know whom you’re going to get. You can save the money and then be left at the altar. Signing Santana isn’t going to push the 2018 team into the playoffs, but it gives them one guarantee for 2019 and 2020. The layout also won’t prevent them from going hard after Harper and Machado.
3. They obviously believe in Hoskins’ ability to play a passable left field. There is admittedly some risk, as Hoskins had played just three games in the outfield in the minors before the Phillies put him out there for 30 games in the majors. The sample size is too small to read much into, but he recorded minus-1 defensive runs saved and 0.1 UZR, so the early indication was that he at least won’t be awful out there. Plus, Citizens Bank Park, with its shorter power alleys, is one of the easier outfields to play for a corner defender. I don’t see Hoskins as a major liability out there, and Herrera and Aaron Altherr are decent defensive outfielders.
This season will still be a building curve for the Phillies. They also traded Freddy Galvis to the Padres for interesting pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos, opening up shortstop for J.P. Crawford. His bat has stalled a bit at the upper levels of the minors, but the plate discipline remains a plus, and he was much better in the second half at Triple-A after a terrible start. It’s time to see what he can do. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them trade Cesar Hernandez and install Scott Kingery at second base, although that may be more of a midseason move to give Kingery a few more months at Triple-A. Maikel Franco will get one final chance at third base before the Machado sales pitch ensues.
If you’re a Phillies fan, you can start to finally see some hope here. They are still a long way from playoff contention -- outside of Aaron Nola, the rotation remains a big question mark as Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez took backward steps last season -- and they’ll need Crawford, Kingery and catcher Jorge Alfaro to develop alongside Hoskins, with at least two of those guys becoming star-level players. Then you add Machado or Harper to the mix. Or maybe both.