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Finding a Fit for Carlos Santana

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The Mariners’ new first baseman is easily the best the Mariners have had in years. They should probably trade him.

Cleveland Indians v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

As the dust settles following the flurry of moves that jettisoned a trio of Mariners All-Stars, Jerry Dipoto claims that we can expect the team to be relatively quiet moving forward, at least until the Winter Meetings. Well, the Winter Meetings start Sunday, and while we’ve heard glowing, optimistic perspectives from many of the newest Mariners, a quote from veteran 1B/DH Carlos Santana has been suspiciously missing. Just one year removed from signing a three-year, $60M deal with a Philadelphia Phillies team that was on the upswing, Santana was dealt to a quite-obviously non-competitive Mariners team for the 2019 season. While Santana in Philly didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, he’s still got a potent bat that a competitive team would likely value enough to send Seattle a worthwhile building block for their expected 2020-21 window.

The trouble, as we saw with the Jean Segura trade, is that when so many teams aren’t trying to compete, you’re left with a limited market of teams for quality MLB talent. Nearly every team that cares if they’re good in 2019 already had a good option at SS, and the same is close to true for 1B/DH. The market for a 1B/DH-type player has consistently involved teams such as the Astros, Rays, Twins, and Yankees, but none are quite the perfect fit for Santana. The former catcher is smaller than the typical 1B at a boxy 5’11, and he might not stack up well to other options at DH. If recent history is to be trusted, Nelson Cruz still offers a stronger bat, although Santana is six years his junior. Houston could well opt to run with Tyler White as their primary DH next season following a breakout 2018, and the same could be said for Tampa Bay and Ji-Man Choi. The Yankees appear focused on adding 1-2 more starting pitchers this offseason, and seem content rolling with some combination of Luke Voit and Greg Bird in 2019, while Minnesota’s next steps are unclear as they reel from a 2018 where everyone regressed. But perhaps the best fit for Santana is the team he left just one year ago?

The Cleveland Indians have been oft-mentioned as active on the trade front this offseason in anticipation of a fourth consecutive division title in the pathetic AL Central. Season One of the club’s two-year, $16 million pact with Yonder Alonso left some production to be desired from the first base position, and while Santana grades out as a slight defensive downgrade, he holds a fairly significant advantage on offense--12% to be exact (per wRC+).

As the club looks to replace some of the offensive punch lost by the departure of Michael Brantley, who posted a 124 wC+, 3.5 fWAR season in 2018, a Santana reunion would provide a smooth solution to the hole in the heart of their lineup.

With 35-year-old Edwin Encarnacion under contract for the 2019 season, he figures to be firmly entrenched in the club’s DH spot, meaning Cleveland would likely look to unload Alonso to make room for Santana. If the Mariners front office is willing to take on Alonso and his $9M price tag in addition to paying a sizable slice of of Santana’s deal--essentially exactly what they did in taking on Jay Bruce and sending the Mets $20M to offset the cost of Robinson Cano--the M’s could potentially fetch themselves another nice young piece from Cleveland to add to their rapidly improving farm system.

The Proposed Deal: 1B Carlos Santana + $15M ($8M in 2019, $7M in 2020) for 1B Yonder Alonso + LHP Sam Hentges

Without attaching an elite, controllable talent as they did with attaching Edwin Diaz to Robinson Cano’s contract, the prospect haul is significantly less inspiring, but without a real expectation to contend over the remaining life of his contract and the maybe possible potentially something of Dan Vogelbach blocked by his presence, a lottery ticket with appealing upside helps the organization more than Carlos’ talents. After adding Justus Sheffield and Ricardo Sanchez to the organization in November, the system has exactly two (2) left-handed starting pitching prospects in their MLB.com Top-30, but Hentges would easily make it three. He’s still a ways off from the bigs, having just completed High-A in 2018, but he performed well enough to earn a placement in AA alongside fellow prospects like Sanchez and RHP Justin Dunn. Most excitingly, The 22-year-old Hentges could easily have one of the highest ceilings in the system.

After winning Minnesota’s Gatorade Player of the Year honors three years prior to Sam Carlson winning the same award, Hentges was selected by Cleveland in the 4th round of the 2014 draft. Following a real brief stop at rookie ball following being drafted, he debuted as a starter in 2015 and impressed to the tune of a 3.10/3.70/3.08 slash line, 10.8 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 through 49.1 innings. His 2016 season however was cut short when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, ending his season after 14 starts. He was able to retake the hill for the back half of 2017, and re-emerged looking sharper than he had before, regularly tossing his fastball in the low 90s and occasionally touching 96-mph as he dominated his second tour through the lower minors. He was able to log 118.1 innings in 2018 while pitching at High-A, slashing 3.27/3.21/3.70 while continuing to improve his sometimes-plus curveball and changeup. His projectable frame and ability to ramp up his heater give you a lot to dream on, and has the tools to assume a Hader/Andrew Miller role should he not pan out as a starter. Hentges is ranked 8th in the Cleveland system by MLB.com and 6th by Baseball America, and would probably fit in a similar space for the Mariners, which feels wild to say.

The money involved, along with taking the money of Alonso’s deal, should provide reasonable return for Cleveland, as they’ll upgrade their own roster for at least the next two seasons without adding any cost to the 2019 payroll and hardly much at all in 2020. What they do with Alonso is up for discussion, as they could once again turn around to try and deal him, little old lady who swallowed the fly-style, but even if they retain or DFA Alonso, the deal would give a future 2021 rotation a far more clear pathway to depth and production.

The Mariners could hold onto Santana for the time being in hopes of presenting a mildly watchable product for the upcoming season with the opportunity to flip Sanatana at a later point when more of a market develops for him. That said, his presence on the roster essentially represents the organization waving the white flag on an interesting piece that would be under control during the club’s next window of competition as Vogelbach will be out of options in 2019. His presence would even throw Ryon Healy’s future into question, which may not concern many fans who endured his 2018, but if Healy is to show any improvement there’s no better time than while receiving consistent reps in a season not designed to compete. Given the chance to retain Vogdor and finally give him the long hard look he deserves as well as the opportunity to add another potential impact player for the 2020-21 window, it’s easy to see why moving Santana might be what’s best for the health of the club, and that’s to say nothing of his willingness or want to play in Seattle.