After taking three of four against the Yankees on Sunday, with their final win being perhaps their best comeback in a season full of them, the Red Sox now sit with a record of 61-39. While the Rays have also stayed annoyingly hot and remain just a game back in the division, Boston’s record is enough to give them a tie for the best in the American League, and they trail only the Giants for the best in all of baseball.
There are some arguments, I suppose, for not doing anything too major at the deadline. They’re already this good. They just brought up Jarren Duran, who is adjusting to life in the majors. They are adding Chris Sale at some point in the next two or three weeks. Ryan Brasier is working his way back for the bullpen hopefully at some point before the season ends. But while those are arguably reasonable, I still think they’re wrong. Ultimately, that this team has played so well is an argument for the opposite, to add as many reinforcements as is reasonable to give them their best chance at making a deep run into October. As a front office member, when your team plays well that should be an impetus to provide them more help, just like the Rays did already by adding Nelson Cruz to their lineup.
And when we’re talking about potential upgrades for the Red Sox, it’s tough not to start at first base. It always made sense to give Bobby Dalbec a chance to run away with this job at the start of the season, and they’re now coming up on their fourth full month of giving him that run. He hasn’t played there everyday, but he’s gotten the majority of the time and has been the main reason why their production from that spot has been so dismal. Through Sunday’s action, Boston’s first basemen are dead last in FanGraphs WAR, sitting at -1.3 (yes that’s a negative sign), and their 62 wRC+ is the worst in all of baseball as well, 11 points behind Cleveland at number 29.
With first base being such a glaring need and the Cubs seemingly in sell mode, Anthony Rizzo has gotten a lot of headlines as a potential target. And it makes a whole lot of sense, given his history of production as well as his ties to the Red Sox organization. That said, I’m not sure he’s actually the best option out there, or at least not the only guy in his tier that is currently available. I would, and will, make the argument that Carlos Santana is at least as intriguing, and perhaps even more so.
His style of production hasn’t always led to the same kind of headlines and publicity as other first basemen around the league, but the 35-year-old Santana has been consistently productive as a major-league hitter. Boasting some of the best plate discipline in all of baseball to go with solid power, he’s got a 121 wRC+ over his career and is currently sitting with a .241/.357/.419 line, good for a 114 wRC+. The Red Sox don’t necessarily need a star, but they need someone who can consistently get the job done. Santana’s only below-average season at the plate was in 2020, which was obviously a strange year where a lot of players had down seasons, and even then he finished with a 96 wRC+.
Given just how poor the production has been for Boston at the cold corner this year, just looking at those base numbers from Santana would be intriguing enough. But the possibility becomes more enticing the more that you think of it. For one thing, while Santana is never going to hit for a high average, that is more about the kinds of balls he puts in play — i.e. he’s very shift-able — than swing and miss. In fact, he puts a ton of balls in play, striking out just over 15 percent of the time this year. For reference, Dalbec’s strikeout rate currently sits at just over 37 percent. Alex Cora talks a lot about needing to put the ball in play, particularly with guys on base, and Santana would add one more bat who does that especially well.
On top of that, I mentioned the patience before, but this is really the strength of Santana’s game. Even on those occasions in which he doesn’t get on base, he is going to work a tough, professional at bat nearly every time through. And, oftentimes those at bats will lead to walks. He has walked just under 15 percent of the time this year, and even in his down 2020 he ended up walking more than he struck out. Santana has never walked less than 13.2 percent of the time in any major-league season, and just for some context that career-low rate would be the highest on the Red Sox this year among players with more than 10 plate appearances, and by a significant margin.
And the final part of Santana’s game that makes him so intriguing is the fact that he hits from both sides, and does so fairly well. Over the last few years, there have been some signs that there’s some separation happening between his swing from the left and right sides — he’s been a bit better in aggregate hitting lefties — but generally the splits are even. The Red Sox have, at times, had trouble balancing out the bottom half of their lineup, and putting Santana there in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup could do just that against a pitcher of either handedness.
It’s also worth mentioning that Santana is not just a rental. To me, there’s no real issue with the Red Sox targeting a rental at first base (Rizzo, for what it’s worth, is a rental and will hit free agency after this season), but there could be an advantage to grabbing someone under control for 2022. If the team has given up on Dalbec as a potential everyday first baseman down the road as well, they will need some sort of stopgap until Triston Casas is hopefully ready to run with the position in 2023. (Coming into the year there was some hope Casas would be ready to do that next year, but at this point that seems unlikely.) Santana will be 36 for almost all of next season, which is a bit concerning, but he’s still putting up consistent numbers and the average annual value of his contract is under $9 million.
The real question to me is whether or not that extra year of control is going to add significantly to the price. If they can get something done with either Dalbec or a non-top-sixish prospect as a headliner, I think you have to at least seriously consider it. It’s also possible you could look to make a bigger deal with Kansas City, as they have both Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow in their bullpen. They would increase the price, but you could potentially do all of your deadline shopping with one deal.
But at the very least, it is worth a phone call to explore a potential Santana deal. He doesn’t have the name value of an Anthony Rizzo, but Santana has been ultra-consistent throughout his career, always works tough at bats, and provides offense from both sides of the plate, all while giving them a first base option for 2022 as well. It seems like wins all across the board to me.