I’m not going act like I’ve watched as many out-of-market MLB games over the last few years as I have NBA, NFL, or international soccer (they’re all out of market though, aren’t they?). While I’ve had issues in recent years taking in a full 162 game season, my past love for the sport has been cultivated by fantasy baseball. Last season, I rode multiple J.D. Martinez hot streaks to a second-place finish in my league. So, naturally, I clamored for the Phils to sign him when he hit the free agent market last offseason. I wasn’t a proponent of the Carlos Santana signing and – with the second half of the season underway – I wanted to do a midseason evaluation of the Santana/Martinez argument.
Sure, Martinez’s -22 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 118 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2016 was dreadful. In fairness, that was coming off a year where he saved +4 runs. You could also argue that his -6 DRS in 2017 for the Tigers was alarming, but I’d point to his +1 DRS in 60 games played in right field following a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the interest of transparency, he’s played in 97 games for Boston this year (58 at DH, 28 in LF, 11 in RF) and has an overall DRS of -3. Compare that to Phillies 1B turned OF Rhys Hoskins, whose -18 DRS is second-worst in all of Major League Baseball among outfielders behind only the Colorado Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon (-25 DRS). Hoskins’ DRS is also tied for third-worst in all of baseball with former/future Phillies target Manny Machado and behind the aforementioned Blackmon and recent Phillies acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera.
If you think I’m overstating Hoskins as a defensive liability, keep in mind that his -18 DRS is creeping into Darin Ruf territory. Darin’s 2013 season was… rough (-29 DRS). It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hoskins could become a better outfielder, and certainly his offensive performance will give him the longevity Ruf failed to have. Signing Martinez rather than Santana would have allowed Hoskins to continue his development at the plate and in the field without the inherent second-guessing and self-doubt that could come as a result of playing a new position in the majors.
Is DRS the be-all end-all of this argument? No. I just wanted to set some context for the anti-J.D. crowd and those who would push the narrative that his defense would’ve been even worse than that of the displaced Hoskins.
Santana defenders have often pointed to his 18.1% walk percentage, third-best in the majors, when critics mention his paltry .213 batting average (8th worst among all qualified hitters in MLB). I’d be remiss to omit the fact that Ryan Howard only hit worse than .220 twice in his career:
- 2012 – The season after tearing his Achilles in the playoffs (.219 in 71 games)
- 2016 – His final season in the majors (.196 in 112 games)
I’m not looking to get into a debate about Howard v. Santana, as both players have vastly different styles of play; the former was a power-hitting strikeout machine, the latter a guy who’s good for around 100 walks per season.
While Santana’s 16 HR and 62 RBI (good for 14th and 4th among all 1B respectively) are nice, Martinez’ major league leading 31 HR and 85 RBI would look even better, especially if it meant that Rhys Hoskins could play in his natural position, where he’s proven to be an adequate defender.
I don’t know if there’s a way to appropriately quantify the effect a single hitter can have on attracting free agents, but if I were a player of the caliber of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, I’d have to imagine feeling more confident in a lineup with J.D. Martinez than Carlos Santana. A lineup with Martinez and Hoskins as protection with power would certainly look more attractive than one with a base-clogging Carlos Santana.
Santana, 32, signed a 3 year/$60 million deal with a club option for a fourth year at $17.5 million.
Martinez, 30, signed a 5 year/$110 million deal with a player opt-out after the 2019 season or three player options at $23.75 million in 2020 and $19.35 million in 2021 & 2022.
Santana signed on December 15, 2017, while Martinez signed on February 19, 2018. Martinez and his agent Scott Boras had held out hope all off-season for a contract in the neighborhood of $200+ million. It’s nearly impossible to predict what the Phillies interest in the slugger would have been had they held off on signing Santana in December while choosing to roll with Hoskins at first and some mix of Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, or even recently called-up Roman Quinn (if he had been able to stay healthy). It’s equally impossible to determine whether or not Martinez would have even been interested in donning the red pinstripes. The Red Sox were clearly a superior team in position to compete for a World Series. Still, the AAV of each contract ended up being pretty similar.
Carlos Santana has value as an on-base presence and a guy who could theoretically provide tips on plate discipline to a young clubhouse. While Martinez has a SO/BB ratio of ~3:1, his power production is something this young team could use. Additionally, Martinez’s presence in the outfield would have kept Rhys Hoskins at first base. All things considered, I’ll stand by my off-season belief that Martinez was a better fit for this team. I don’t know if the Phils had interest in Martinez, nor do I know what – if any – financial impact signing Santana in February could’ve had as opposed to his December signing. Would the Phillies have been worse without Santana? Perhaps, but I think that also depends on what fan expectations were going into this season. The general consensus seems to be that the Phillies have overachieved. The Phillies certainly would’ve been a better defensive team with a healthy Roman Quinn in left field, or maybe Aaron Altherr could’ve found his way at the plate with the knowledge that he could get regular playing time. I’m not so sure that the indirect consequences of signing Santana and bumping Hoskins to the outfield were worth it.
The 2018 offseason is set to be the most important in recent memory, with owner John Middleton poised to write at least one big fat check to a marquee free agent. If the Phils strike out in acquiring Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, we could very well look back at the decision to forego a big offer to JD Martinez as a mistake. Then again, with a team in first place and a bright future on the horizon, perhaps it won’t be.