Carlos Santana and the inevitability of moving on
By Jeremy Klein
Carlos Santana has been an important player for the Cleveland Indians over the past six seasons. Unfortunately, his time with the club may be coming to a close.
I tend to have an affinity for players who remind me of the type of player I was as a kid. Or, more accurately, I tend to have an affinity for players who remind me of the type of player I think I was as a kid.
Carlos Santana has long been one of those players. His patient approach and solid power at the plate is both an effective and, at least to this writer, aesthetically pleasing combination. He’s worked hard to turn himself into a decent defender at first base, with a career 0.4 UZR/150 at the position. He’s even become a sneaky-good base runner, posting positive UBR scores over the past two seasons, per Fangraphs.
Santana has been remarkably consistent during his time with the club. Over his six full seasons with the team, he has never posted an on-base percentage below .351. While his home run totals have fluctuated from year to year, he’s posted a wRC+ over 119 in five of his six seasons. And perhaps most importantly, he’s done all that while playing in at least 143 games each year.
Unfortunately, Santana’s time in Cleveland may be coming to a close after the 2017 season, the last year he is under contract with the club. But it’s also somewhat fortunate in a way, because the main driver of Santana’s potential departure is the team’s acquisition of All-Star slugger Edwin Encarnacion.
Good luck finding an Indians fan that isn’t ecstatic about Encarnacion’s signing. There are no questions as to Encarnacion’s merits: 40-plus home run power, five years of an OBP over .350, and four years of the last five with an OPS over .900. Indians fans can attest to the fact the Encarnacion is one of the most feared sluggers in the game after the Indians faced him and the Toronto Blue Jays in the last year’s ALCS.
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Adding Encarnacion is the type of signing many fans, myself included, thought the Indians would never make again after the great Swisher-Bourn debacle.
Which is exactly the reason why it’s so difficult to envision Santana returning to the Indians in 2018. The Indians’ 2017 payroll currently sits at just under $118 million, per Spotrac. The Indians also have over $90 million committed to just ten players in 2018.
The $90 million figure does not include arbitration raises for players such as Cody Allen, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez, and others. Those arbitration raises alone could push the Indians’ 2018 payroll past $115 million.
Now, the team could conceivably carve out enough money to retain Santana. The most interesting way to for the club do that would be to decline Michael Brantley’s 2018 club option for $12 million. As inconceivable as that thought may seem, if Brantley can’t make it back onto the field and be productive this season, the team will be hard-pressed to bet another $12 million to find out if 2018 is the year Brantley’s shoulder returns to health.
The Indians will also have the option of dealing another player to free up money. Perhaps they decide that they don’t want to spend $19 million-plus on two relievers in Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. Perhaps they decide it’s finally time to move on from Trevor Bauer.
But making any of those cost-cutting moves to retain Santana is, in a way, robbing Peter to pay Paul. And there’s no certainty as to what Santana will be able to get in free agency. Yes, free agent sluggers on the whole received less money in free agency this offseason than many expected, which is of course a huge reason the Indians managed to land Edwin Encarnacion. But there’s no guarantee the market crash lasts forever. If Santana puts up a repeat of his 2016 numbers, the teams will come calling, with multi-year deals in tow.
Losing coveted free agents is inevitable for a small-budget club like the Indians. That’s not news.
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But that knowledge doesn’t make the cold reality any less unpleasant. Carlos Santana has been a joy to watch since his debut for the Indians back in 2010. It will be a joy watching him employ his patient approach and big-time power again in 2017. It may be the last time he does so in an Indians uniform. The baseball pundit in me understands why that’s true. The fan in me doesn’t want to believe it.