Pitching, pitching, pitching. From the moment the 2017 season ended (or, arguably, from the moment the franchise came into existence), the need going into the Hot Stove season for the Texas Rangers was pitching.
Jon Daniels has interest in several free agent arms as the Winter Meetings kick off in Florida, having already signed Doug Fister and Mike Minor earlier this winter to join the rotation and added Chris Martin to the bullpen on the Meeting's first day. Jeff Banister wants to explore a six-man rotation, leaving room to add two more potential arms.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of the field is good to go for 2018. While pitching remains a priority for the Rangers, Daniels is still looking to improve the club in other areas – including first base and/or a right-handed bat.
Would You or Wouldn’t You: Sign Free Agent Carlos Santana?
Carlos Santana, who turns 32 just after the 2018 season starts, has been a Cleveland Indian for his entire career. If Lance Lynn was the model of consistency for pitching targets, Santana has to be considered the model of consistent durability for free agent position players. Following his rookie season in 2010, Santana registered at least 600 plate appearances in every season.
Starting off as a catcher, Santana moved primarily to first base in 2014. He received and declined the 1-year/$17.4 million Qualifying Offer from the Indians and would cost the Rangers a second round draft pick if they sign him.
Cleveland has also made a longer term offer to the switch-hitter, which was not accepted, and Santana has said that he will give the Indians the opportunity to match any deal he finds to his liking.
Why You Would: As stated above, Carlos Santana is an ever-present bat in the lineup. He’s been a consistent on-base threat, as well. For his career, Santana has maintained a .365 OBP. As a switch-hitter, he’s kept that line, putting up a .358 OBP from the left side and a .379 OBP from the right.
He offers an overall upgrade over Joey Gallo as a first baseman, having logged an average of just under three and a half seasons at first. Even in the power column, where nobody can really touch Gallo, Santana still puts up a .445 slugging percentage with an average of 25 home runs per season.
Perhaps more important to a Rangers team that features three already aging bats, Santana has not only maintained an image of health on the field, he’s actually been better over his last two seasons since a slight decline in the two before that. Santana had slightly down years in 2014 and 2015, averaging a slash line of .231/.361/.411 – which still isn’t an awful season, especially considering he drew over 100 walks and drove in 85 runs in both of those seasons.
2014 was the first year that Santana was a primary first baseman. You can actually see that he got more comfortable starting in 2016, where he actually logged more games as a designated hitter than a first baseman. In that year, Santana put up a slash of .259/.366/.498. He put up a career high 34 home runs, drove in a career high 87 runs, had a career high 151 hits, and had a career high 688 plate appearances.
This past season in 2017, Santana was primarily a first baseman and only the slightest of declines. But his decline was a .259/.363/.455 slash, with three fewer hits in four fewer at-bats. That’s a bat that the Rangers would love to have in the lineup for a few more years, rather than have to go all-or-nothing with Joey Gallo or, if Gallo has to slide back over to third for an injured Adrian Beltre, the unpredictability of Ryan Rua, Jurickson Profar or Ronald Guzman.
The commitment to Santana wouldn’t be much in years, either. A three-year deal takes Santana to his age-35 season, which is attractive to the Rangers in not keeping a long-term contract and attractive to Santana, as he will get another chance to grab a contract as a DH.
Why You Wouldn’t: Even though Carlos Santana checks off all of the boxes that say the Rangers should make him a priority acquisition, the truth is that he isn’t. Santana isn’t a necessity for this year. He’s not the piece that would put the team, let alone the lineup, over the top.
To make a long story short, it’s just bad timing for the Rangers, who might have 2018 as their last truly competitive year for a while (pending other moves this offseason) and a desire to focus elsewhere in free agency.
Signing Carlos Santana creates a crowded situation in the Rangers’ depth chart. Santana as a full time first baseman pushes Joey Gallo to left field (and third base in the inevitable occurrence of an Adrian Beltre injury). That shifts Nomar Mazara to right field and makes Shin-Soo Choo take on the majority of at-bats as a DH.
To that end, what happens to Willie Calhoun, the prized acquisition in the Yu Darvish trade to the Dodgers? The Major League-ready rookie would have to spend the majority of this season in Triple A, which seems to be a waste of time and talent.
Don’t forget about Ronald Guzman, who many predicted would be the one to man first base coming out of 2018 Spring Training. Sure, another year in Triple A wouldn’t do him much damage, but if you’re signing Santana to a three-year deal, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes that much further away for Guzman. Maybe that makes Guzman an attractive trade piece, but Jon Daniels has become protective of his assets on the farm after years of trading for veterans.
While a projected 3-year/$45 million deal (per MLB Trade Rumors) contract doesn’t sound like a painful deal – indeed, the Indians offered Santana $36 million over three years, the Rangers still have a need and desire to upgrade at pitching.
Those discussions more than likely start with Yu Darvish, who will command at least $20 million over the next few years. With Daniels publicly stating that the Rangers’ payroll will take a step backwards in 2018, taking on another larger AAV contract seems entirely unlikely unless Texas could find a taker for Choo's contract.
Still, Carlos Santana represents an upgrade to the lineup and field for the Rangers. If Daniels and Banister are serious about contending in 2018, and the moves (even losing out on Shohei Ohtani) seem to point the ship in that direction, it is upon them to look for ways to improve the team in all facets of the game. Santana certainly does that.
What would I do? I WOULD NOT sign Carlos Santana. This just isn’t the right time for the Texas Rangers to grab Santana in free agency. There are needs elsewhere and there are plenty of depth options that can help cover first base and designated hitter if the situation presents itself.
Right now, the focus needs to be on obtaining another quality arm or two, whether rotation or bullpen or both. IF, and that looks like a large “if,” Carlos Santana is still available after Texas settles its pitching situation, maybe my tune changes. But for now, I can’t justify Carlos Santana as a need for the Rangers.
So, what would you do? Share your thoughts on signing Carlos Santana or just make Smooth puns at Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.