Now that Shohei Ohanti and Giancarlo Stanton have found their homes for 2018, the rest of Major League Baseball can get on with their business and the offseason can finally kick into gear. A few transactions have been completed over the last couple of days, but with the Winter Meetings taking place this week there is sure to be no shortage of activity around the league. One team who figures to be at the center of the hustle and bustle is the Milwaukee Brewers, who head to Orlando with a shopping list that starts with starting pitching.
The Brewers have ample room in their payroll to make some significant additions, however GM Slingin’ David Stearns has made some comments recently that seem to indicate that he’s not too keen about doling out a $20+ mil annual salary for someone like Jake Arrieta. Some have speculated that it’s more likely that an impact acquisition comes via the trade market, and there have been reports recently that the Brewers are receiving interest in their stable of outfield depth. Among that group of players, the most valuable commodity is arguably starting right fielder Domingo Santana.
Santana, who turned 25 in August, began his professional career back in 2009 when the Phillies inked him as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic. Santana didn’t spend long with Philadelphia, however, as he was accidentally traded to the Astros in 2011 as a part of the package that brought Hunter Pence to the City of Brotherly Love. It was with Houston that Santana started to really gain some notoriety as a prospect.
Santana rated as one of Houston’s top prospects for the next several seasons as he tore up minor league pitching, and even though he suffered through a nightmarish MLB cup of coffee in 2014 (0-17, 14 K), Domingo entered the 2015 season ranked as a top-100 prospect by MLB Pipeline. With the Astros in the hunt for a playoff spot, however, their front office (lead by Jeff Luhnow and David Stearns) was compelled to make a splash at the trade deadline. They put together a deal that sent Santana along with Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, and Adrian Houser to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez.
Domingo debuted with Milwaukee a few weeks later and showed well in the 38 games he played down the stretch, sending one over the fence in his first game as a Brewer and batting .231/.345/.421 with 6 home runs in 145 plate appearances. That was enough to convince Milwaukee to deal Khris Davis the following offseason, making room for Santana to play everyday in right field in 2016. He struggled with a shoulder injury that season, though, and was only healthy enough to appear in 77 games. He did hit a promising .256/.345/.447 with 11 home runs in his 281 plate appearances, however, which was enough to secure him the gig in right field once again heading into 2017.
Santana would stay healthy enough to get a full season’s worth of at-bats in 2017 and wound up becoming Milwaukee’s best offensive player. The 25 year old’s breakout season included a .278/.371/.505 batting line across 607 plate appearances with 30 home runs. He lead the club in plate appearances, runs scored (88), on-base percentage, weighted on-base average (.372), and wRC+ (126), was 2nd with 85 RBI, a .278 batting average, and a 12% walk rate, and finished third on the team in home runs and more surprisingly, stolen bases (15). His contributions helped the Milwaukee Nine capture 86 victories, which had them on the cusp of a playoff berth during what was supposed to be another “rebuilding season.”
Santana is very obviously an offensive force, ranking in the top-15 among all qualified outfielders last season in wRC+. He does strike out quite a bit, including a 31.7% career K rate and a 29.3% rate last season, but when he does make contact he makes it count. Only 18 qualified hitters registered hard contact more often than Domingo’s 39.7% rate in 2017, and his 27.4% line drive rate ranked 2nd in all of baseball. That helps explain away “luck” as the sole reason for Santana’s .363 BABIP in 2017; his career BABIP is .354 and his career hard contact rate is 38.2%. As long as he’s able to keep hitting the ball hard on a line, Santana should be able to continue to post lofty batting averages on balls in play.
Though his batting average may fluctuate, Santana can be counted on to be an on-base threat year in and year out thanks to his patient approach at the plate. Though his long swing leaves him prone to whiffs, he doesn’t chase nearly as many pitches outside the zone as much as your average hitter, as evidenced by his 26.3% career swing rate at pitches outside the zone (league average was 30% in 2017). This has helped Santana earn a base on balls in 11.5% of the big league plate appearances he’s made in his career, boosting his OBP to a more-than-acceptable .353 over 286 MLB games. That patience also allows Santana to wait for pitches he can drive, which has helped him bop 49 home runs and 50 doubles in his brief time in the big leagues.
The only real knock on Santana’s game is that he is a bit of an adventure in right field. Defensive metrics can be notoriously wonky in small samples and they absolutely hated Santana’s work in the outfield during the 561.2 innings he spent on the grass in 2016. The outlook improved a bit over a full season’s worth of data in 2017, though Santana was still among the poorer defenders in the league while registering -5 Defensive Runs Saved and -7.6 Fielding Runs Above Average. Santana has a strong arm and average speed, but often times takes poor routes to the ball and is known to make a mental mistake or two. The tools are there to be a decent enough defensive outfielder; given his relative youth, perhaps there is still time to improve.
Even if he remains below-average on defense, however, the overall package when put together comes out as an above-average regular in the outfield. Santana was worth 3.3 WARP, 3.3 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR in 2017 in his age-24 season. He has actualized the “power-hitting right fielder” scouting reports that followed him as a prospect and was a top-15 outfielder overall in the National League last season. He’s already a very good player, but if Santana can continue improving in the outfield or take another step forward with the bat, it’s not difficult to envision him becoming a star in this league.
With all that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Santana is drawing plenty of interest around the league already this winter, including from the San Francisco Giants. What will be surprising, however, is if Santana is sent off in a deal that doesn’t include a known Major League commodity or MLB-ready player in return. The 25 year old is arguably Milwaukee’s best player and is under cheap control for another four seasons. With the rebuild in the rearview mirror and heightened expectations for 2018, it doesn’t make much sense for Milwaukee to deal Santana for a package of prospects. Domingo Santana is what you hope a prospect (like Lewis Brinson or Brett Phillips or Monte Harrison) turns into. Now on the other hand, if the Brewers are able to build a package around Santana to make a deal for a controllable ace such as Chris Archer, that might be something more worth considering.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus