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Milwaukee Brewers 2017 Preview by Position: Right Field

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Is this a make or break year for Domingo Santana?

Kansas City Royals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Last year was supposed to be the season that the Milwaukee Brewers could get a feel for what they have in Domingo Santana. Acquired along with three other players in the trade that sent Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez to Houston, Santana was the first of that quartet of prospects to make it to the big club in Milwaukee back in mid-August of 2015. In 38 games down the stretch that season, Santana hit .231/.345/.421 (109 OPS+) with 6 home runs, a good enough finish to place him atop the depth chart in right field heading into 2016.

Domingo got off to a solid start last year, batting .250/.341/.413 through the first month of the season while hitting mostly at lead-off for Craig Counsell in part because of his ability to draw walks and get on base. Then the injuries began to pop up. First it was a balky shoulder that forced him to the disabled list. He would miss the final two weeks of May before returning to action in the beginning of June. But after only four appearances, he went back on the DL on June 10th with an elbow issue that may have been related to the shoulder injury. He wouldn’t return to action again until more than two months later on August 19th.

Counsell eased Santana back into regular action in right field, and over the final 6 weeks of the season Domingo again showed the tantalizing potential of a starting-caliber outfielder. Over his final 131 plate appearances to close out the year, Santana posted an .852 OPS while slugging 7 home runs to bring his season-long line to .256/.345/.447 (109 OPS+) with 11 home runs and 2 stolen bases. That finish allowed Santana to at least maintain his hold on the starting right field job heading into this season.

Domingo was always a bit of a divisive prospect. His raw power has long excited scouts who have praised him as having 30+ home run potential, but accompanying that power is a highly questionable hit tool. In 426 plate appearances since debuting with Milwaukee, Santana has struck out 32.2% of the time. His batting average as a Brewer has been a palatable .248, but that’s come on the strength of a .343 BABIP that chances are, Santana won’t be able to keep up forever. He does hit the ball incredibly hard when he makes contact (38.5% hard contact in 2016, 93.8 MPH avg exit velocity per Statcast), but doesn’t really possess the speed associated with a typical high BABIP player.

Defensively, Santana remains a bit of a question mark as well. The reports when the Brewers first called him up were that Santana had the ability to be an above-average corner outfielder, thanks in large part to a plus arm. He has displayed that arm strength on occasion, but he’s also had shown a tendency to take some dubious routes to balls and has had mental lapses at times. According to Fangraphs’ Inside Edge fielding data, Domingo made a below-average amount of unlikely, even, and likely plays in the outfield versus the typical right fielder in 2016. That no doubt contributed to his poor metrics, with Santana accruing -10 Defensive Runs Saved and a -9.5 UZR across just 561.2 innings in the outfield last season. That substandard showing on defense greatly weighed down Santana’s value overall, as both Fangraphs WAR (-0.1) and Baseball-Reference WAR (-0.2) assessed him as below-replacement level last season.

The outfield landscape for the Brewers is a bit different now than it was one year ago. Either Santana’s defense will need to improve or his bat will have to take the next step so that he can start providing positive overall value to the Brewers. Another year around a ~110 OPS+ won’t get it done with his lack of defensive contributions, since that level of offense is only slightly better than what the average right fielder put up league-wide last season. Staying healthy will be also key for Domingo, as now instead of fringe-type players like Ramon Flores and Alex Pressley taking the at-bats he missed, top prospects like Lewis Brinson or Ryan Cordell may get the opportunity to take Santana’s job if he goes down with injury once again.

This may very well be a “make or break” season for the soon-to-be 25 year old. He has yet to prove that he can 1) stay healthy and 2) produce at an above-average clip over a full season. With several top prospects nipping at his heels, this may be Santana’s last best opportunity to do so with the Milwaukee Brewers. As Craig Counsell said when asked about Domingo, “You’ve got to perform. You don’t get unlimited chances.”

On the Farm

Ryan Cordell was the PTBNL from last year’s trade with Texas and has transitioned well to the outfield after beginning his career as a third baseman, he figures to start the year at AAA after posting an .803 OPS and 19 HR in AA Frisco...former 1st-rounder Clint Coulter didn’t hit well while repeating the Florida State League, but finished strong after a promotion to Biloxi...Carlos Belonis was once a large-bonus international signee, but has stalled at Wisconsin...Demi Orimoloye has shown plus tools, but didn’t perform well at Helena last year.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference