If you haven’t noticed lately, the Phillies are starting to come out of their hibernation. While some of their prospects have yet to fulfill their promise, and some of the pitching still needs work, the team is rebuilding the right way: Giving young players opportunities while starting to sign some veteran free agents to surround them. This started earlier in the week with the signing of Tommy Hunter to help out in the back of their bullpen.
Today, they went above and beyond that, however, by signing free agent first baseman Carlos Santana to a 3-year, $60 million contract that may have sent shock waves down some spines. I doubt many looked at Santana as a $20 million player, but times continue to change when it comes to baseball salaries. There is a golden rule of thumb when you try to estimate what a player may make as a free agent: Take the highest number you have in your mind and increase it by 10-20%.
What Santana Brings:
As a team last season, the Phillies ranked 13th in OBP (.315) and 12th in slugging percentage (.409) among the 15 National League franchises. If not for Rhys Hoskins‘ 50-game splurge at the end of the season, the numbers would have been even worse. The Phillies were not just a bad offensive team in 2017 – they are horrid. Four regulars had OPS+ numbers under 90 (100 is considered average). Santana can’t fix all of that by himself, but he will certainly help out, given his .363 on-base percentage and .455 slugging percentage for the Indians. The Phillies desperately needed a player who can get on base, and Santana does that in spades. He has averaged 105 walks per 162 games over his career, including a league-leading 113 in 2014, one of two seasons where he broke 100 walks. With all of those walks comes power. Since becoming a big-league regular, he has hit at least 20 home runs in five of his seven seasons. He has also displayed some durability, evidenced by the fact that the least number of games he has played over the last seven years was when he played in 143 back in 2012. This is not all due to the designated hitter rule, as Santana only played seven games at the position last year. He is a consistent hitter, who brings an extra layer of legitimacy to the middle of a lineup that lacked some legitimacy until Hoskins came aboard later on in the season.
The Phillies are hoping that the season Hoskins put up in 2017 was not a fluke, and that youngsters like Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, and Andrew Knapp continue to develop into big league regulars. While J.P. Crawford failed in his first 23-game audition it the major league level, it is too soon to give up on him as a big league contributor, especially given the fact he is a shortstop, where the offensive bar is always set lower.
I think this is just as important as anything else: Santana should bring a positive influence to a young lineup as a whole. The Phillies can stick him at first base every day, and have full confidence that he can play to the back of his baseball card. If the young lineup surrounding him takes a step forward in 2018, the Phillies could end up having a middle-of-the-pack starting lineup, which would be a vast improvement over the 2017 squad. It is hard to say that any team will go from a terrible offense to a great offense overnight, but there is real potential in the Phillies lineup to have more teams under them in the runs scored standings than there are teams ahead of them.
Santana does come with risks and questions. Hoskins was likely to play first base for the Phillies in 2018 before this signing occurred. He will likely now shift to left field, giving the Phillies three young, capable corner outfielders (Hoskins, Williams, and Altherr). Without a designated hitter, the Phillies will need to get creative. On days they decide Santana needs a day off, they can slide Hoskins back to first, with both Williams and Altherr in the outfield. The signing likely means less at-bats than they projected for Williams and Altherr, but they can still both get more than enough playing time. These are the problems teams like to have. Over the last several seasons, the Phillies haven’t had these problems because they lacked depth and talent. Now, they are getting stronger in both areas.
The Phillies, as they stand now, are not likely to be a playoff team in 2018. That is OK. By handing Santana a 3-year deal, you have to assume the franchise is confident in 2019 and 2020 being in play, especially since they figure to be in on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado once 2018 comes to an end. While the pitching outside of Aaron Nola was….well, saying iffy would be an insult to staffs that actually were iffy…not all that good in 2017, a lot of their young arms gained valuable experience during what was a lost season as a whole. Experience one year never guarantees success the next year, but even a slight step forward for some of their starters will position this franchise well going forward. The Phillies have the resources (cash and prospects) to make further moves. That may not come this year, but if I were a National League team, I would start worrying. The Phillies lost 96 games in 2017. If they can turn that around to somewhere in the neighborhood (OK, maybe STATE) of .500, the organization would do cartwheels. The Phillies figure to be contending for a playoff berth sooner rather than later. It wasn’t long ago where I would have smacked myself upside the head just for saying that.