Carlos Santana, MLB's Best 'Bang for Buck' FA, Can Return Fear Factor to Red Sox

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 28, 2017

Cleveland Indians' Carlos Santana watches his ball after hitting a one-run double off Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Gabriel Ynoa in the fifth inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Cleveland. Lonnie Chisenhall scored on the play. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

In front of a Boston Red Sox team in need of an impact bat is an array of expensive stars. Giancarlo Stanton tops the charts as a trade target. Then come free agents J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer.

If they'd rather save some money, there's always Carlos Santana.

The idea has already crossed the Red Sox's mind. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the club's brass met with Santana's agents at the general manager meetings earlier this month:

While Mitch Moreland was a serviceable player for Boston in 2017, his free agency opened up a chance to upgrade at first base. Despite Moreland's steadiness, Red Sox first basemen ranked 28th in OPS this past season.

As the first baseman for the Cleveland Indians, Santana racked up an .818 OPS with 23 home runs. Such is life for the 31-year-old switch-hitter. He's averaged an .808 OPS and 24 homers since 2011, peaking with an .865 OPS and 34 homers as recently as 2016.

There's an obvious "Yeah, but..." at work here: These numbers are nice, but not exactly Stantonian, Martinezian or even Hosmerian.

Stanton, whose $325 million contract is too large for a Miami Marlins team that wants to cut payroll, just won the National League MVP on the strength of a 1.007 OPS and 59 homers. Martinez went yard at an even higher rate en route to a 1.066 OPS and 45 homers. Even with his relatively modest .882 OPS and 25 homers, Hosmer would have led the 2017 Red Sox in both departments.

After pacing MLB in both OPS and runs in David Ortiz's farewell season in 2016, the Red Sox fell to 22nd in OPS and 10th in runs without him in 2017. Power was their biggest bugaboo, as their bats finished dead-last in the American League with 168 home runs.

Still, the Red Sox are less a bad team in need of something drastic and more a good team in need of something smart. Their power outage didn't stop them from winning 93 games and a second straight AL East title in 2017. Plus, they already have $200 million in projected expenses for 2018. 

If the Red Sox trade for Stanton, they'll have to take on most or all of the $295 million remaining on his contract. I have Martinez and Hosmer projected to earn close to $150 million in free agency.

Santana is going to cost a fraction of these numbers. Expectations for his contract—see FanRag Sports and MLB Trade Rumors—fall in the three-year, $40 million range. That's barely an upgrade over the $31.8 million he made over his last six years with Cleveland.

It doesn't help Santana's cause that he's tied to draft-pick compensation after rejecting a $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Indians. Otherwise, his modest contract projections are reflective of how he's not a terribly exciting player. He's more "good" than "great."

What sets Santana apart, however, is just how consistently he's good.

The stat which provides the best perspective is OPS+, which adjusts a player's OPS for league and ballpark factors and puts it on a scale where 100 is average. Santana's career OPS+ is 121, and only Andrew McCutchen has more seasons of at least 500 plate appearances and an OPS+ over 120 since 2011.

Granted, the 112 OPS+ that Santana finished 2017 with is one of the exceptions. His on-base percentage held steady at .363, but he lost 43 points off his 2016 slugging percentage.

Yet, his underlying talents for drawing walks, making contact and collecting extra-base hits are going strong:

The only habit that's trending poorly is Santana's walk habit. But given that he still has a ways to go before he's descended all the way to the league average, griping about that is much ado about nothing.

Santana's power, meanwhile, is buoyed by two power-friendly habits. He keeps the ball off the ground and often uses his pull side, where power is most prevalent.

As a bonus, Santana is becoming a better player outside the batter's box. The former catcher's metrics at first base have been largely positive over the last three years. Notably, he and Moreland co-led AL first basemen with 10 defensive runs saved this season.

"He wants to keep getting better," Cleveland third base coach Mike Sarbaugh told T.J. Zuppe of The Athletic. "He'll come up and say, 'How am I doing?' When you have somebody that cares, that means a lot. He's been outstanding."

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 30: Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians throws out Adam Engel #41 of the Chicago White Sox at first base during the seventh inning at Progressive Field on September 30, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The White Sox defeated the
Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Santana's steady offensive talents and improving defense make him an outlier even among other potential free-agent bargains. Lorenzo Cain is underrated, but his game is based on athleticism that may not age well. Todd Frazier's strong track record is being undercut by a steady fade. The excellent 2017 seasons of Zack Cozart and Logan Morrison came out of nowhere.

Perhaps more to the point, Santana's profile casts him as a cheaper and better alternative to Hosmer.

Hosmer may be younger by three years, but he owns a modest 111 career OPS+ and defensive metrics that raise skepticism as to whether he deserves his four Gold Gloves. Even in living up to his upside in 2017, he still featured good-not-great patience, an undying ground-ball habit and questionable defensive range.

It's harder to make the case that Santana is a better player than Stanton and Martinez. Heck, it's impossible. They're two of the best hitters in the game.

But that doesn't mean that Santana couldn't be a better investment than either of them. It'll be a challenge for them to live up to their future earnings. He could easily be worth more than he's being paid.

That would be of use for a Red Sox team that's projected to spend over $50 million on Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and other arbitration cases just in 2018. Beyond 2018, they'll need to weigh extensions for them and the pre-arb duo of Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers.

So while Santana may not be the best player the Red Sox can get, he's the best signing they can make. He'd fill a need, upgrade their lineup and wouldn't crowd their payroll.

Since all this would also be true on many other teams, the Red Sox had better hurry before he's gone.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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