On December 8th, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Milwaukee Brewers were shopping outfielder Domingo Santana.
In a vacuum, it makes sense for the Brewers to seek to trade Santana. The twenty-five-year-old is coming off a breakthrough season in which he posted an .876 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with 30 home runs and 15 stolen bases, good for a .306 TAv. The right fielder still has four seasons left of team control, and he won’t enter arbitration until next offseason.
In addition to Santana’s promising performance and contract situation is the Brewers current logjam in the outfield. As of right now, from left-to-right the team’s starting outfield looks like Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, and Santana; prospects like Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, and Corey Ray are waiting in the wings. The Brewers also have Hernan Perez, who is adequate in the outfield.
It doesn’t seem like Braun is going anywhere due to his no-trade clause, and Broxton will not garner anywhere near as much value in a trade as Santana due to his performance and age. Something has to give to make room for the teams young prospects. Santana seems to be the front offices’ choice as the odd man out.
Despite Santana’s success and the Brewers willingness to seek out a deal, a market that would appease David Stearns and company’s demand has not materialized, according to a report by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN. The disinterest in paying the presumable high asking price for the cost-controlled young outfielder has to do with his defensive troubles in the outfield and his questionably high luck-related statistics, namely batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB).
It’s no secret that Santana is a bad outfielder. By fielding runs above average (FRAA), he was fifth-worst in the league among 65 right-fielders at -7.6 FRAA. In 2015 and 2016 combined, he was worth -10 FRAA despite playing in just 115 games. Statcast ranked him 294th out of 309 outfielders according to their Outs Above Average metric. Santana didn’t make a single 4 or 5 star play in 38 attempts according to Statcast. Outfield defense only gets worse with age. Because Santana is atrocious in the outfield at age 24, he’ll likely be unplayable as he gets closer to 30. Teams don’t want to pay a premium for a future DH.
Compounding on Santana’s issues defensively was his alarmingly high BABIP and HR/FB in 2017. Santana had the six-highest BABIP in the league among those with over 500 plate appearances, at .363. He hovers around the likes of Avisail Garcia and Tim Beckham, who enjoyed fluky breakout seasons, Charlie Blackmon, who plays his home games in Coors Field, and Jose Altuve, who just won the American League MVP. BABIP is one of the first indicators that a player is playing over his head. Statcast’s Exit Velocity metric suggests Santana was a bit lucky with his balls in play this year. His average exit velocity was 89.3 MPH, putting him at 62nd in the league. He barreled the ball in just 5.6 percent of his plate appearances. Statcast’s findings are nothing to scoff at, but hardly indicative of a player who is going to have future success on balls in play. Inquiring teams are aware of this.
Not only did Santana have providential success on balls in play, but many more of his fly balls went from home runs than one would otherwise expect. His 30.9 HR/FB rate ranked behind just Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton among qualified hitters. Smart money is on that HR/FB rate to come down.
But Santana’s batted ball profile cannot afford for that HR/FB rate to come down. He is a ground ball despite what his power profile suggests. His ground ball percentage was up around 50 percent in 2017. If his HR/FB plummets, his power numbers will dwindle more than the average player due to his reliance on the ground ball unless he makes an adjustment in the meantime.
Front offices around the league are aware of these weaknesses and fortunate outcomes in Santana’s game. They aren’t going to pay top price for a product they expect to diminish in performance and value. This is why the Brewers need to hold onto Santana. The right fielder needs to prove that he can fix his defensive woes or that his batted ball profile is not a fluke with the Brewers before they can entertain the notion of trading him. Until then, they need to ride the Santana wave and see what kind of performance they can get out of him.
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