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Trade Analysis: Carlos Santana solidifies first base without compromising Brewers’ team identity

Santana gives the Brewers a stable bat and a plus glove at first base

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers became one of the first teams to buy at the deadline on Thursday, acquiring veteran first baseman Carlos Santana from the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates.

Santana stabilizes first base, a position from which the Brewers have received a .231/.290/.354 line. That translates to a 74 wRC+, meaning Milwaukee’s offensive production at first base has been the worst in baseball in 2023.

Rowdy Tellez entered the season as the everyday first baseman after hitting a career-high 35 home runs in 2022. Rather than building upon that output, he has struggled to a feeble .213/.285/.388 line (79 wRC+). Since hitting his last home run on May 22, Tellez has hit .165/.203/.207 for a 9 wRC+.

Tellez has played through a forearm injury for much of the season that may have impacted those numbers. After the pain landed him on the injured list in early July, he fractured the ring finger on his left hand, extending his absence to at least mid-August.

Owen Miller has since received most of the playing time at first base. The Fredonia native was due for heavy regression after a blistering hot May due to a lack of loud contact and a low walk rate. He has hit .216/.257/.278 since the start of June and is down to an 84 wRC+ on the season, making him better suited for a utility infield role.

The 37-year-old Santana is hardly the hitter he was in his prime with the Cleveland Guardians, but he represents a notable upgrade over his new teammates. He gave the Pirates league-average offense in 94 games, slashing .235/.321/.412 with 12 home runs for a 99 wRC+. Adjusting for the league offensive climate, that closely matches his .202/.316/.376 line (102 wRC+) with the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners last year.

Santana appeared primed for his best campaign in years after posting strong quality of contact metrics in 2022, but he has fallen off heavily in that regard. His hard-hit rate has plummeted from 44.9% to 36.6%, and his barrel rate from 9.3% to 5.7%.

At the same time, Santana still possesses some pop. Along with his respectable home run total, his max exit velocity of 111.5 mph is consistent with his marks since 2020. Additionally, Santana’s once-elite plate discipline is still well above average. He has walked in 11.5% of his plate appearances while striking out in just 17.6% of them. His walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks 18th among qualified hitters this year.

Santana may still have more production left in his bat than his line this year indicates. Even if those flashes do not translate into improved production, he still gives the Brewers an average bat at first base, a much-needed upgrade over the status quo.

The veteran also fits cleanly into the identity of this Brewers roster. General Manager Matt Arnold has indicated that the team is hesitant to compromise its defensive excellence in search of more offense. The Brewers are one of baseball’s top defensive teams, ranking third in Defensive Runs Saved and fifth in Outs Above Average. Santana has long been one of baseball’s top defensive first basemen, posting a 6 DRS and 2 OAA with the Pirates this year.

Santana did come at a cost, as the Brewers parted ways with highly-regarded international signing Jhonny Severino. However, he gives the Brewers reliability at a position of weakness, both at the plate and in the field.