While there hasn’t been much action this off-season on the free agent market, the trade market has been a bit more active. One rumor that has kind of flown under the radar has been the Milwaukee Brewers willingness to shop young outfielder Domingo Santana. The Brewers are fresh off a second place finish in the NL Central and are looking to improve their club, particularly their rotation that lacks a clear-cut #1 starter. They have outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson waiting in the minors with Ryan Braun and Keon Broxton manning everyday outfield roles in the majors. It makes sense that the Brewers are willing to explore trading from a position of depth to improve their rotation.
Originally acquired by Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez trade, Santana is coming off his first season as a full-time player. He is 25 years old and has four years of team control remaining, meaning he will be arbitration eligible after next season. While Santana is far from a perfect player, consider the following stats:
Player 1 is Domingo Santana in 2017. Player 2 is Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich in 2017. At the moment, Christian Yelich is probably the best player available on the trade market. Near every team in the league has been connected to him at one point or another. There have been rumors that the Marlins asked for best-prospect-in-baseball Ronald Acuna from the Braves in a potential trade, and that’s probably not all that unreasonable. Yelich is cheap, under control, and would make any team better.
The Brewers, meanwhile, have found the market for Domingo Santana to be drier than they anticipated . Should teams that are interested in Yelich have interest in Santana? Let’s compare the two in more depth.
I’m going to start here because there are some notable differences in the numbers above. The discrepancy in overall value is most noticeable, as Yelich produced over a full win more (1.2) in total value than Santana. At least some of that value is tied to defense. Even though Santana had a slightly better DRS, Yelich was clearly better in terms of UZR/150. That is even more notable considering Yelich was playing center full-time while Santana was in right field. Yelich posted a better mark at a harder position.
There is also a difference in their ability to make contact. Santana struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances, well above the league average of 21.6%. Yelich was much better, posting an above average mark of 19.7%. There was also the matter of base running. Domingo added 3.2 runs above average on the bases, a number that while impressive, was still squashed by Yelich’s 6.8 runs above average, a mark that was 8th in all of baseball. Santana was good on the bases, Yelich was elite.
Yelich ran the bases better, played better defense, and made more contact than Santana in 2017. That much is clear. Once we look past those numbers, things become a lot more similar. The offense seems to favor Santana in most every offensive category listed above. Santana’s biggest flaw (strikeouts) did not prevent him from posting a higher OBP and walk rate than Yelich. While there is undoubtedly more swing-and-miss in Santana’s game, the holes in his swing have not impeded his ability to get on base.
It is also obvious that Santana has more power. His 30 round-trippers in his first full season are nine more than Yelich has ever hit in a season, and 12 more than Yelich hit in 2017. There is a reputation that big-power, high-strikeout guys are pull-hitters only. That is not the case with Santana, and as we dig deeper into the batted-ball profiles of the two players, there is not that much of a difference:
Santana is a righty, Yelich a lefty. As you can see above, both players use the whole field. Santana does hit the ball to the pull side a bit more than Yelich, but his opposite field and center field percentages are still both above league average and both players go up the middle at a nearly identical rate.
Domingo Santana also hits the ball harder than both Yelich and the league average of 32.2%. The most impressive thing about Santana is his ridiculously low amount of soft contact. His 11.7% soft contact was good for 6th best in all of baseball – the names above him are Matt Olson, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, and Rhys Hoskins. While there is a stereotype that comes along with Santana’s high-power, high-strikeout profile, he actually uses the whole field better and hits the ball harder than most.
Cheaper than Yelich. Possibly. Nobody is going to argue that Yelich isn’t the better overall player. His ability to run the bases at an elite level, play a premium outfield position, and make high amounts of contact are advantages over Santana. But if you’re a team looking for just an upgrade with the bat, the profiles of both players aren’t that different. You could even argue that Santana is actually pretty clearly the more impact hitter. He hits the ball hard at an elite rate, uses the whole field, gets on base, and adds value with his legs. Take away the strikeouts and Santana is a pretty complete hitter.
So what would the Brewers want for their dynamic outfielder? Despite the other numbers, you can’t ignore the strikeouts. You also can’t ignore that Santana was a negative in the field. Those two flaws will limit his trade value. He is also about to enter arbitration after 2018, so his cheapest years are basically behind him. Additionally, there is a similar (albeit older and more expensive) player available in free agency in J.D. Martinez.
A comparable deal might be one the Milwaukee themselves made two years ago when they sent a very similar player in OF Khris Davis to the Athletics for prospects C Jacob Nottingham and RHP Bubba Derby. Davis, like Santana now, had four years of control left at the time of the trade. Santana gets on base at a better clip than Davis and is a better all-fields hitter. He is also a considerably better base runner than Davis. Santana’s 3.3 fWAR from last year is far and away better than Davis’s career high of 2.4 fWAR from 2016. I think the Brewers would want more for Santana than they got for Davis.
The Brewers have asked for an impact starting pitcher in exchange for Santana, and there aren’t many of those available via trade right now. The Diamondbacks are looking to replace J.D. Martinez’s production and might be a match. They have been willing to discuss LHP Patrick Corbin, but he is a free agent after the year and I doubt the Brewers would trade Santana for a rental. Perhaps Arizona would be willing to deal RHP Zack Godley straight up for Santana. Godley has five years of control left and is pre-arbitration. While he is not a top-of-the-rotation guy, Godley posted a fabulous 3.37 ERA (3.32 FIP) and 3.5 fWAR in his first full season in the rotation. With some pitching depth coming through the Diamondbacks system, perhaps a Godley for Santana swap would make sense.
The Braves have been in talks for Yelich and might be another match. They have one of the top farm systems in all of baseball that is loaded with pitching prospects. They also have RHP Julio Teheran who has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time and has three years of team control left. I mentioned Atlanta as a potential destination for J.D. Martinez, but it may instead make sense to deal from an area of depth to get a similar player in Santana for much less money.
Milwaukee could also choose to upgrade their bullpen and stick LHP Josh Hader in the rotation. The Cincinnati Reds have dangled closer RHP Raisel Iglesias, who has three years of control left, in trade talks this off-season and swapping a closer for a controlled power bat might make sense for a rebuilding club. However, there is always the obstacle of inner-division trades to overcome, and that may hinder a potential deal.
Regardless, to trade Santana I feel like the Brewers will need to get exactly what they are looking for. However, I just don’t see any teams willing to deal a top of the rotation starter, and for that reason the Brewers might be better off holding. Though they have outfield depth to spare, Santana is the best hitter of that bunch and losing him for less than equal value would be a blow to the Brewers chances in 2018 and beyond.
For teams considering emptying the farm for Christian Yelich or the bank for J.D. Martinez, Domingo Santana would prove a cheaper alternative with similar production. It all comes down to what the Brewers ask in return. If they are willing to lower their demands, perhaps one of the trades mentioned above or one similar might make sense. But until the Brewers either lower their price or a team surprises them with an offer, I don’t see a trade on the horizon.