As we’ve said on this website many times over the early portions of this offseason, there are a lot of different roads the Red Sox can take this winter. Dave Dombrowski and company can go out and make the major splash by adding a true star-level slugger to their lineup in one of (or both of!) Giancarlo Stanton or J.D. Martinez. They can also go in the complete opposite direction and make a minor signing or two and call it a day. Then, they can do anything in between, which is an almost infinite number of possibilities on its own. Given just how poorly this lineup performed last year, there are a lot of different options out there right now to improve it. Among all of them, Carlos Santana could very well be the best fit out there for the Red Sox.
I would start this argument by saying that, in an ideal world, first base would be where the Red Sox make their splash. Mitch Moreland was absolutely fine in 2017, particularly compared to our expectations for him and the fact that he was forced into a bigger role than was originally expected, but he was not exactly what a playoff teams wants from one of the most potent offensive positions on the diamond. This is the spot in the lineup where Boston stands to improve the most from outside help, as most other spots can reasonably expect some degree of improvement from the incumbent. There is also the matter of Hanley Ramirez, who Dombrowski has said can go back to being a near-everyday first baseman. I don’t quite buy that, and think it’s extremely risky to go into the season with that as your primary plan. Things get a whole lot easier if Ramirez is slotted to spend most of his time at DH once again.
With that in mind, we look to the first base market to find the best option. Santana, while my favorite, is not a perfect option. I will acknowledge this. For one thing, he’s about to enter his age-32 season, firmly placing him in the back nine of his career. Additionally, he was extended a qualifying offer by the Indians and declined it, meaning the Red Sox would have to give up compensation to sign the first baseman. Now, the qualifying offer system has changed with the new CBA and things are a lot more complicated right now. This handy flowchart will help explain all the different scenarios, but what you need to know right now is that the Red Sox would have to give up their second-highest draft pick along with $500,000 from their international signing pool next summer if they were to sign Santana. That certainly feels like a lot to give up for signing a player entering his age-32 season.
However, Santana is the type of player I wouldn’t mind signing for his early-to-mid-30’s, as he’s the type of player Boston is looking for in the middle of their lineup. For one thing, he has been a model of consistency over this career, posting a wRC+ between 117 and 132 in all but one of his seven full seasons in the majors. He’s not going to get a ton of hits and will never lead the league in average. On the other hand, he has impressive plate discipline, spending time near the top of the walk-rate leaderboard every year and consistently posting strikeout rates in the teens. Furthermore, he combines that plate discipline with legitimate power with the potential to post Isolated Powers around or above .200. Finally, he’s a switch hitter who can hit from both sides of the plate. He has hit equally well from either side over his career, though he’s been better against right-handed pitching in each of the last two years. He may be getting older, but that is the type of skill set I’m willing to bet on at any age.
There is also the fact that the market doesn’t appear as if it will require a large commitment to sign Santana. He is kind of in that Edwin Encarnacion zone (though admittedly a step below) where his age concerns could outweigh the consistency of the bat. Obviously these things aren’t always correct, but we have two different outlets predicting free agent contracts this year in MLB Trade Rumors and Jon Heyman. Unfortunately Jim Bowden, the longtime master of this exercise, is not participating this year as far as I can tell. Anyway, MLBTR predicts a 3/45 contract for Santana. Meanwhile, Heyman makes his own predictions while also getting one from an “expert source.” The writer predicts 3/48 while the expert predicts 3/38. Even considering the draft pick/international money cost, that is a steal for someone as consistent as Santana.
Finally, you get into the other options at first base. Eric Hosmer is going to make the most money among the first base free agents, and he does have higher upside while also being younger than Santana. However, he also carries significantly more downside, particularly when you consider the fact that he’ll cost a five- or six-year deal. I’m a big Lucas Duda fan, but he has a scary injury history and essentially has to be platooned. Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso are at least partially products of whatever led to baseball’s home run boom around the league, and I worry about counting on that to repeat itself in 2018. Plus, Morrison isn’t exactly a joy to root for.
I’m not going to say that Santana is absolutely, 100 percent the best potential target for the Red Sox this winter. That’s not really my style. I think one could easily make an argument for other players, specifically Martinez. That being said, the more I think about it the more I think first base is the most logical position to target, and Santana is clearly the best option in my opinion. He brings a consistent skill set to a lineup that needs consistent punch, and he won’t cost a long-term contract. Instead, he fits right into their current window without eating into their payroll years down the line when they’d like to lock up some of their key pieces. Go get it done, Dave.