Unfortunately, the Cleveland Indians fell short of a very good opportunity to win a World Series with their 2017 roster and with the potential exiting free agents they have. 2018 is a pivotal year in their current cycle of this roster and Carlos Santana is one of those pivotal free agents that leaves a potential hole at first base and in the lineup
Since Carlos Santana debuted for the Indians in 2010, only seven first basemen have posted a better fWAR. Of course, we have to also take into account that from 2010-2013, Santana was a full time catcher and wasn’t really moved off of the position mostly permanently until 2014. But despite the few years where he took way took a lot of heat from some fans who based their opinions on him by silly things like his batting average and for some years, the clarity of which he speaks English. It seemed as though in 2016, more fans opened up to him, maybe because he looked like he was having more fun and showed it. Or maybe they watched a terrible but entertaining baseball movie that helped them realize batting average is a stupid way to value a player. And this year, a well earned nomination for a Gold Glove at first base has made him look better than ever despite a slow start to his final season under his first contract with the Indians.
Santana has given the Indians 23 WAR according to Fangraphs for $31,218,500 over the last eight seasons and an OPS+ of 121. So the first question to Can the Indians re-sign Carlos Santana is, can they replace him if they don’t?
Well, if not, here are the internal candidates under contract.
Edwin Encarnacion: Despite a rough start, Encarnacion was the player the Indians signed to a 3 year, $60 million deal with a fourth year option that they hoped he would be. With Santana gone, the Indians could ask him to use his first baseman’s glove more and use the DH role with more flexibility in mind, giving different players some quasi-off days by keeping the off the field, which could help with injuries and can also help with roster flexibility by not locking up two roster spots to players who can only play first base or DH.
However, Encarnacion is 34, made just 23 appearances at first base, the least in his career since 2011 when he was still trying to establish himself as a full time big leaguer. He’s older and also suffered a pretty nasty ankle sprain in Game 2 of the ALDS and missed Game 3 and Game 4 because of it. For his career at first, Encarnacion has been worth -19 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). It may not be the best way to keep their expensive slugger healthy and productive while also likely hurting them defensively considering how much value Santana gave them in the field in 2017.
Michael Brantley: Currently, Brantley is technically on the roster. The Indians have until three days after the World Series ends to decide whether or not to pick up his $12 million option for 2018 or give him a $1 million buyout to be a free agent. Some have thought for the last two years that Brantley would be a good candidate to move to first base to keep him healthy and hide his declining range in left field. His arm is still plenty great, as evidenced by his eight assists in a season he played just 86 games. His surgically repaired shoulder held up through 2017 but he had offseason ankle surgery recently to stabilize some tendons in his ankle that kept him out all of September and somehow magically were strong enough to see him make the postseason roster despite three at bats since the end of August. Some expect the Indians will pick up Brantley’s option because if healthy, he’s worth that $12 million and he would be good insurance should the Indians ultimately be unable to re-sign Santana and then could move Brantley to first base in his absence and hopefully keep him healthy. But, $12 million is a lot for a player who has played just half a season out of the last two given where else they may need to allocate some money and there is no guarantee first base would keep him healthier.
Jason Kipnis: At the moment, Jason Kipnis doesn’t appear to have a permanent position on the Indians roster. He played centerfield in September because Bradley Zimmer got hurt with a season ending hand injury and the Indians felt their infield was better off with Jose Ramirez at second next to Francisco Lindor and some combination of Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz at third base. The Indians were non-committal to where Kipnis may play with them in 2018. Zimmer should force Kipnis back out of centerfield. They could keep Ramirez at second base, keeping a roster spot open for Urshela (who is out of options) and Diaz by putting Kipnis at first base if they lose Santana. Yes, Kipnis had a down year because he suffered shoulder and hamstring injuries and he will be in 31 in April with over $28 million guaranteed to him the next two seasons. We’ve seen Kipnis rebound from injury before. In 2014, an oblique injury derailed his entire season but he posted All-Star worthy campaigns in 2015 and 2016. While Kipnis is a bit older and suffered some more injuries that eventually take their toll, he could bounce back at 100% next year.
Bobby Bradley: The Indians 2014 3rd round pick hit 23 home runs in his first season at AA. He played in 131 games for the second straight year and nearly shaved off 50 strikeouts, which is highly impressive for a 21 year old in his first go-around in AA. Bradley has also worked himself into better shape, but the problem is, he is 21 and just had his first go-around in AA. While the improvements are all signs the Indians should be encouraged by, Bradley is far from being ready enough to contribute to a team with serious championship aspirations.
Francisco Mejia: The Indians are sending their top prospect to the Arizona Fall League to learn third base to enhance his versatility. Maybe they could teach him first base too? Fake Ron Washington says it’s incredibly hard, though. And the Indians still like Mejia as a catcher and he may not even be ready for a full time role at the big league level yet.
Diaz: Yandy Diaz has never played first base but he’ll be 27 next season and he really has nothing left to prove at AAA and a move to first base would allow the Indians to keep him in the majors and potentially use Urshela’s glove at third base. There may not be room on the 25 man roster for both and as stated before, Urshela is out of options and likely would not clear waivers.
It’s hard to guess who could be on the trade market. Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moreland, Yonder Alonso, Mike Napoli, and Lucas Duda are the most prominent names on the free agent market this offseason. Hosmer will get overpaid somewhere. Moreland looks to be a candidate to re-sign in Boston. Alonso had a terrible second half. Napoli’s walk rate cratered even further, as did Duda’s, making them more attractive options.
So, those are the internal options. Nothing extremely encouraging, at least not for a team who has serious World Series aspirations in 2018.
The next question is How can the Indians afford Santana?
The first base-designated hitter market last offseason was not fruitful, which helped the Indians to land Encarnacion. The biggest players with money who need someone at those spots next year are the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Both insist they want to stay below the luxury threshold next year because of rising taxes and also to keep payroll low for the free agent mega class that comes next offseason. The Yankees also seem committed to Greg Bird. If they’re out on Santana or Hosmer, that could really reduce the amount of money offered to them.
At the least, Santana should command a four year contract worth something in the $60-75 million range. He’s never played in less that 143 games since starting full time in 2011 and he continues to produce consistent numbers along with that durability.
Consider the Indians owe Encarnacion over $18 million in 2018, $13 million to Kipnis, $10 million to Corey Kluber, $8 million to Carlos Carrasco, $6 million to Yan Gomes, $9 million to Andrew Miller in his last year under contract and a projected $10 million to Cody Allen, also his last year under contract. This doesn’t include arbitration raises for Lonnie Chisenhall, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer, who will command a big raise from his $3.5 million in 2017.
The Indians could decline Brantley’s $12 million option, potentially trade Kipnis because he may not have a position, Gomes to save money and make room for Mejia. These trades could clear up for money or maybe bring back a first baseman to replace Santana.
The case to sign Santana back is fairly easy on the surface. For the third straight year, Santana has decreased how many times he’s struck out, he played over 143 games for the seventh straight year, hit over 19 home runs for the seventh straight year and of course, was nominated for a Gold Glove award this year. He led the AL in DRS and started 16 double plays thanks to his improve defense and great arm.
However, Santana’s walk rate also declined for the third straight season, even though the 13.2% mark he posted in 2017 was still well above average. The power decrease from 34 homers in 2016 to 23 in 2017 is a slight drop in fly balls and HR/FB%. His 7.1% swinging strike rate is well within his career norms (7.3%) even though his chase rate only ticked up slightly the last two season.
The Indians have signed a similar player to Santana to a four year deal before. Nick Swisher was coming off of his age 31 season in 2012, with a 12% walk rate, playing in 148 games or more for the seventh straight year, seventh straight year with 20 or more homers and a single digit swinging strike rate. Swisher was roughly the same player for the Indians in 2013 despite a slow start but seemed durable, had solid power and walked a lot. Then it fell out. I don’t need to go into detail much more.
From 2011-2017, the year’s of Santana’s full time career, first baseman ages 32-35, which is what Santana would be if the Indians signed him to a four year deal, no first basemen has accumulated the 21.2 fWAR Santana has from 2011-2017 nor has any averaged his average of 3 fWAR over those seven seasons.
In that age group over the last seven seasons: Joey Votto has an fWAR of 11.7, Encarnación 10.9, Miguel Cabrera 8.9, Albert Pujols 8.8, Adrian Gonzalez 6.8, Mark Teixeria 6.6, and then a drop off of 2.2 fWAR for the players below them. So, given the age parameters at his position, that’s an elite group of names, most of which barely average or don’t average even 1 fWAR over that seven year period.
While Santana has been valuable and durable, the Indians have been there before with Swisher, who had a similar resume. It’s not a fair comparison because it is hard to predict injuries, unless a player has been injured before. Santana has only has some bumps and bruises, but the same was said for Swisher. Again, the comparison is unfair, but if the Indians don’t learn by taking that into account and given that Santana commands nearly the same contract, they could make the same mistake again.
So, the original question of Can the Indians re-sign Carlos Santana does not have a definitive answer. Bryan Shaw, Jay Bruce, Joe Smith and Austin Jackson are also free agents and were immensely valuable to the Indians in 2017. Other players under contract are seeing their annual salary start to hike, a lot of players are due for big arbitration raises and the Indians would obviously like to have money available to try to sign Francisco Lindor long term. Signing Santana long term only blocks Bradley, who is not a sure thing yet but if they lock up Santana long term, Bradley could wind up being a valuable part of a trade that could help the Indians bring in other players in areas they need to fill on the big league roster like reliever or outfield, because if the Indians re-sign Santana, Bruce, Shaw, Smith and Jackson likely wouldn’t be.
The Indians can re-sign Santana and because they really need to take advantage of the roster they have under contract for 2018, they should re-sign him. Re-signing Santana gives the Indians a great chance to win the World Series again in 2018, while beyond 2018 it could hamper them in other ways. They may need to move some players under contract and will have to let other free agent’s walk and they may hamper their roster beyond 2018, but they can re-sign him to give them a better shot to win it all in 2018, and the focus has to be on winning now.