Signing Carlos Santana Means the Phillies' Rebuild Is Nearing an End
The Philadelphia Phillies' rebuild has officially kicked into a higher gear.
There were indications the Phils believed their timetable for contention had moved up a bit when they fired manager Pete Mackanin at the end of the 2017 season and hired Gabe Kapler to take the reigns. They sent another signal when they signed free agents Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to a pair of two-year deals worth a combined $34.25 million.
A Unique Player
Offensively, Santana does everything the Phillies like. He didn't hit for much of an average last year (.259), but he had a terrific on-base percentage (.363) thanks to a high walk rate (13.2%). In fact, that walk rate ranked tied for 18th among 144 qualified MLB players, and his strikeout rate of 14.1% was 30th-lowest in baseball. While not a prodigious home run hitter, he did pop 23 dingers last season and had 37 doubles while playing half his games in a ballpark that ranked 17th in home run rate in 2016.
Among qualified first basemen, Santana’s fWAR of 3.0 ranked 12th in 2017, putting him in the upper half of first sackers in baseball. That walk rate (13.2%) was much higher than the league average (8.5%), while his strikeout rate (14.1%) was much lower (21.6%). And his walk-to-strikeout rate of 0.94 was better than any of the 13 Phillies who accumulated at least 150 plate appearances last season (Rhys Hoskins' was 0.80).
A Change of Scenery
It's easy to see why the Phils wanted him. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2011, Santana has accumulated no less than 609 plate appearances in a season and has a slash line of .249/.363/.445 with 168 home runs, an average of 26 a season per 162 games. He's the only Major League player over that stretch to pile up at least 600 plate appearances a season and have an on-base percentage of at least .350 in every one of those seasons.
Getting him out of Progressive Field could also be a boon to his numbers. While he virtually split his home/road homer numbers (11 at home, 12 on the road), his slash line away from Cleveland (.281/.398/.485, wRC+ 137) was much better than his slash at home (.236/.323/.424, wRC+ 93). The move to Citizens Bank Park in Philly should be a boon for him, as Philly's home park ranked first in terms of home run rate (1.409 homers per game) in 2017 by a wide margin (the next closest was Yankee Stadium at 1.279).
How Will Philly Make It Work?
From a pure baseball perspective, it's easy to see why the Phillies wanted him. He controls the strike zone and should see a power boost moving to the City of Brotherly Love. But it does create a logjam in the outfield.
Hoskins, a natural first baseman who played 29 of 50 games in left field last year for the Phils, will now become a full-time outfielder with Santana taking over at first. The team has three other outfielders -- Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams and Odubel Herrera -- who were all slated to be starters in 2018.
Altherr played in only 107 games last season (he missed more than a month with a hamstring injury), but he hit .272/.340/.516 with 19 home runs in 412 plate appearances. Williams was called up in late July and batted .288/.338/.473 in 83 games with 12 bombs and 55 RBI in just 83 games. And Herrera, the former All-Star, accumulated 563 plate appearances last year and batted .281/.325/.452 with 14 dingers and 42 doubles, one shy of the NL leaders.
The Phillies could try to trade one of those outfielders in the hopes of landing a young, controllable starting pitcher to pair with Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation, or they could platoon Williams and Altherr in right field.
The Santana signing is a clear indication that the Phils are ready to ramp up their rebuild and perhaps even try to contend for one of the two National League wild card spots next season. That would be a tough jump, as the Phillies won just 66 games last year and finished in the NL East cellar -- a jump of 20 wins in one season would be difficult. However, many of those losses were piled up before the team had called up Williams, Jorge Alfaro, J.P. Crawford and Hoskins, and the team did go 37-38 in the second half.
Regardless, Santana should make the Phillies a more complete offensive ballclub, and he could allow the team to also address it's starting rotation concerns at the same time.