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Milwaukee Brewers Free Agent Targets: Carlos Santana

He always gets on base, but will he slug in 2021?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The folks over at MLB Trade Rumors have introduced the idea of at least one free agent going to Milwaukee. Tim Dierkes and Mark Polishuk both have mentioned the possibility of Carlos Santana being a good fit in Brewers’ blue and gold.

The switch-hitting first baseman has been a quality major league player for a decade, playing most of his career in Cleveland. In 2019, Santana was an All-Star and posted a career best 4.4 fWAR. In his All-Star season, he blasted 34 home runs while slashing .281/.397/.515. As with a multitude of players, he struggled in 2020, slashing .199/.349/.350,

What never seems to change for Santana is his ability to get on base, especially by way of the free pass. Santana led the American League in walks this year and consistently posts BB rates in the 14-16% range while striking out at a similar clip. Unfortunately he forgot to slug in 2020, thus the paltry slash line.

Unfortunately for Carlos Santana, he picked a bad year to struggle. The market has the potential to be depressed. He will be going into his age-35 season in 2021. Plus there are peripherals that are reason for concern, which I will address shortly.

Nonetheless, Santana has a track record that should not be ignored, and that track record suggests a bounce back season is possible in a big way. In the nine seasons prior to 2020, Carlos Santana hit more than 20 home runs seven times and over 30 twice. Throughout those same nine seasons he posted a wRC+ above 120 six times. In all nine of those seasons, he produced above .350 OBP, and even in his down year of 2020, he put up a .349 OBP.

There is also the added benefit that he is a switch-hitter and generally a good one. From the left side of the plate, Santana has a career slash of .235/.360/.443 and a 119 wRC+ versus right handed pitching. From the right side against left handed pitching, he is even better. Over his career he has slashed .276/.379/.452 with a 127 wRC+. Whatever the handedness of the pitcher, he is a dangerous hitter and crushes left-handed pitching.

As mentioned, there are concerns regarding Santana’s peripherals. He had an extreme drop in his hard hit statistics from 2019 to 2020. If we look at 2019, Santana puts up strong hard hit data that placed him in the 91st percentile in exit velocity and the 83rd percentile in hard hit percentage.

Carlos Santana 2019 MLB Percentile Rankings
Baseball Savant

Compare that to 2020, and it becomes easy to explain his struggles. His exit velocity and hard hit percentage were both in the 36th and 38th percentiles respectively.

Carlos Santana 2020 MLB Percentile Rankings
Baseball Savant

Is the drop in hard hit data a legitimate concern is the question? If there is concern, it comes from the fact that he was not able to barrel as effectively as in years past. He dropped from the 67th percentile in 2019 to the 41st percentile in 2020 in barrel percentage. Is this the result of a small sample or a drop off the performance cliff? Of course 2020 could have been all about bad luck too. His BABIP (.212) certainly suggests it was.

Whatever the case, Carlos Santana is a gamble for the Brewers or any other team looking to sign him. The Brewers’ front brass has to be reasonably confident that their hitters who struggled in 2020 will return to career forms in 2021. Santana falls in the exact same category.

Carlos Santana certainly comes with risk. He also comes with a great deal of upside. In fact there might not be a player in this free agent class that epitomizes a better upside-cost gamble than Santana. If the Brewers sign him and he returns to something approaching career norms, he will be a bargain hitting in the middle of the lineup. If not, he could be the 2021 version of 2020 Justin Smoak, or Logan Morrison, or Ryon Healy...

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant