Before we get too far into this, I want to make it perfectly clear: I am a big fan of Domingo Santana and still think he is capable of putting up monster numbers in the majors. Whatever happened to him in 2018, whether it was bad mechanics or low confidence or a mix of the two, he’s still young enough — he’s younger than Aaron Judge, as I’m fond of saying — to figure it out.
He may not quite be the Mariners’ next Nelson Cruz, who the Brewers also had to give up on, but in a league where playing DH is available to him and on a team that will be willing to give him the at-bats, another 30 home run season is not out of the question.
With that said, David Stearns and the Brewers had to move him.
It may have come a year too late, but we know Stearns did try to trade him last winter, or at least had talks with a number of teams about him. The offers just weren’t in line for what Stearns wanted for a 24-year-old coming off of a 30-homer season and hadn’t even reached arbitration yet.
So the Brewers brought him to camp, even though he looked to be blocked from playing time with the trade for Christian Yelich, and he was one of the reasons why the Lorenzo Cain Signing Made No Sense. Trying to move Ryan Braun to first base helped open up some at-bats for Santana, but even when that move and injuries gave Santana a decent about of playing time early in the year, he couldn’t do anything with it. The power was inexplicably gone, especially to the opposite field, where he did much of his damage in 2017.
He was arguably the worst hitter in the Brewers’ lineup for the first quarter of the season, which is hard to do considering he was also in the lineup with Orlando Arcia. Ultimately, faced with the choice between burning Santana’s last option or keeping an unproductive, inflexible player on the 25-man roster, Stearns chose the former. In less than a year, Santana had gone from a budding superstar to spending virtually an entire season in the minors.
And that, basically, is why he had to go this winter.
Even with an encouraging September once he returned to the majors, it’s Santana’s lack of versatility (only being able to play in a corner outfield spot), being blocked at other positions (if Braun plays, it almost has to be in left field now the failed experiment to move him to first base and the emergence of Jesus Aguilar), and being out of options that all made this a necessity. In theory, a four-man outfield rotation can work for the Brewers, given the amount of time off Braun (and likely Lorenzo Cain in the next year or two) requires. But in practice, it was a flop in 2018, and there would be no safety net in 2019.
Stearns’ ideal fourth outfielder is able to play all three positions and has options remaining if he feels like he can get by with Hernan Perez acting as his fourth outfielder for short periods of time. That’s a reason why Keon Broxton’s time with the Brewers may also be over shortly, and why Stearns decided to grab Ben Gamel, younger brother of former top Brewers prospect Mat Gamel, in the deal.
Gamel virtually the same age as Santana — older by about 80 days — but still has one option left and an additional year of team control. He lacks the power Santana (or even his older brother) had, with a career-high of 11 home runs coming in 2017 with the Mariners, but he’s typically shown a decent eye at the plate and can — at least nominally — play all multiple outfield positions. He also won’t become arbitration-eligible until after the 2019 season, and the Brewers will have his rights through the 2022 season.
Santana was due a raise in his first year of arbitration and projected to make around $2 million next year. The trade drops one name off the Brewers’ potential arbitration hearing list and saves them close to $1.5 million, which could be used to improve the team elsewhere. Maybe not-so-coincidentally, the Brewers recently agreed to a contract with Cory Spangenberg that will pay him $1.2 million if he’s in the majors.
In addition to Gamel, the Brewers also picked up a wild card pitching prospect in Noah Zavolas, who was an 18th round pick in last year’s draft after graduating from Harvard. He’s already 22 years old, but had success as a multi-inning reliever in A-ball last year and could be the type of relief arm that moves quickly through the system. According to Stearns, he was also apparently a target of the Brewers in the draft before the Mariners drafted him ahead of where they were planning to take him.
In the end, it admittedly feels like a light return for what Domingo Santana could still be someday. But the Brewers were trading the current version of him, the one that’s had trouble making contact throughout his career and saw his plate discipline and power take a nosedive in the last year. You can fault the Brewers for selling low and for not keeping him around in a role similar to where he started last year, but the Brewers already saw how that turned out. And while that was a small sample size, it’s probably important to remember that if anyone knows Santana, it’s Stearns, who also had him in the Houston system before he came to Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez trade.
The lack of a remaining option backed the Brewers into a bit of a corner — either they could try to trade him now and recoup some kind of future value, or they could keep him and just be left to pray that he could return to being a productive player. And what would happen if he didn’t, and was still the same Santana we saw at the start of 2018?
In that case, he likely would have become completely unplayable and the Brewers would’ve had nowhere to hide him without sacrificing a spot on the 25-man roster, possibly forcing a DFA. That would’ve been a bigger failure than potentially trading him for 75 cents on the dollar and seeing him become the next Khris Davis.
Gamel may not have the potential Santana does, but for what the Brewers are looking for out of that roster spot, he may end up being a better fit. The Brewers needed a fourth outfielder with both positional and contractual flexibility, and at this point, that is not something Santana is capable of being.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference