While next offseason’s historic free-agent class will create quite the hot-stove spectacle — maybe the most memorable in the free-agency era — the current class isn’t without intrigue, either. Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani are likely to be the top prizes. That said, first base is shaping up to be an interesting position, too.
Yonder Alonso, Lucas Duda, Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison, and Carlos Santana, are each available to bidders on the market. Hosmer is the top brand name amongst the group and had the best season, recording a 4.1 WAR and 135 wRC+ in 2017, each mark a career best. Hosmer is among the young players in the game who elected not to trade in earning potential for security in the form of a pre-arbitration contract extension, and he’s being rewarded by entering the market in his prime, having just completed his age-27 season.
But given Hosmer’s agent and his inconsistent performance, many in the queue during Monday’s chat feared
the Red Sox their club would overpay for Hosmer.
The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger reported that Scott Boras is attempting to value Homer’s intangibles as part of the sales-pitch binder he’ll send to clubs in hopes of securing an eight-year, $200 million contract.
The biggest problem with free-agent contracts is typically a misjudgment or misunderstanding of how quickly a player will age, but Hosmer’s next contract will buy more peak years than most and will be going to a man whose body, work habits and skill-set profile to age well.
While those are all positive attributes, $200 million(!) is a steep ask for a player who, in seven major-league seasons, has produced full-season WAR totals of 0.0 (2014), -0.1 (2016), and -1.7 (2012). A player who, in the year of the air-ball revolution, hit 2.5 ground balls for every fly ball.
It will be interesting to see where the market for Hosmer goes. The Yankees claim they’re not in need of a first baseman. And Gregory Bird, this author suspects, is a player in whom they should believe. That’s unfortunate news for Hosmer specifically and the first-base market as a whole. Also bad news? Clubs haven’t appeared interested in paying for bat-first players in recent times.
While Hosmer leads the class, there are also plenty of alternatives.
Some carry more risk. Does Morrison’s 2017 breakout mark something of new level for him? Can Alonso, a fly-ball revolutionary, continue the magic? The upside, in the case of either player, is tantalizing. But perhaps the best value option, and most likely to perform, is Santana.
Let’s consider the wisdom of the crowd. Here are the not-yet-released crowd projections on Hosmer and Santana’s free-agent contracts:
Hosmer: 5.5 years, $104.4 million ($19.1 million AAV)
Santana: 3.5 years, $54.7 million ($15.6 million AAV)
Hosmer: 5 years, $95 million ($19 million AAV)
Santana: 3 years, $45 million ($15 million AAV)
The crowd expects Santana’s term to be two years lighter that Hosmer’s and the total pact to be $50 million less expensive. I suspect Santana might also outperform Hosmer over the next three years.
Santana’s signature skill is his batting eye.
Since 2015, Santana is seventh in the majors in walk rate (14.6%), 35th in on-base percentage (.363), and tied for 49th in wRC+ (118). He’s fourth in pitches seen, at 8,292.
And perhaps it’s that batting eye that’s worth betting on.
Santana has always had excellent vision and temperament at the plate. While he told me, for a piece that appeared at The Athletic, that he started wearing contacts four years ago, he doesn’t wear them off the field and said he never feels anxious during plate appearances. He also developed a visual aid to help hone his plate discipline:
It was in 2008, without suggestion from a hitting coach or teammate, Santana created another landmark. He began a practice of visualization, of imaging a ring halfway between the mound and home-plate. And at that checkpoint he faced a binary decision: he would either prepare to swing if the pitch traveled through the imaginary loop, or if he judged that the ball did not pass through the circle, he would decide — while the pitch was 30 feet out — not to swing. …
“People have told me I am a really patient hitter but in reality what I try to do is make a circle halfway between the mound and home plate,” Santana said through an interpreter. “And if it’s not in that circle I’m not going to swing.”
While all skills decline with age, Santana’s primary skill — his batting eye — should age better than power and bat-to-ball skills, as work by Jeff Zimmerman has indicated.
Walk rates have been fairly constant over the 14-year time frame, so the curve can be compared without too much adjustment. The two curves are somewhat similar to the current seven-year time frame peaking at bitter earlier at age 26 to 28. In the past, the peak was near 29 to 30.
Santana is also remarkable for his consistency and health.
Since his first full season in 2011, Santana has produced 21.2 WAR, which is an average of three wins per season. During that stretch, Santana has never produced a season less than 2.1 WAR (2015) or greater than 3.7 (2016). He was worth a flat 3 WAR this past year, his age-31 campaign. Santana is the embodiment of the three-win player. He basically always has been.
Since he broke his leg in a home-plate collision during what had been a strong rookie campaign in 2010, Santana has been remarkably durable. He’s played in at least 143 games in every year since 2011 and at least 152 games in the last five years.
While players tend to become less healthy, less nimble, less flexible with age, Santana has been one of the game’s most durable bats and was said to be in the best shape of his life last season, for what that’s worth.
And in some significant ways, with his glove, Santana is improving.
A converted catcher, he produced a +10 DRS mark as a first baseman last season, tied for second at the position, and has greatly improved defensively, up from +1 in 2016 and -5 in 2015 and -4 in 2014. (Hosmer produced -7 DRS and -6 DRS in 2017 and -16, respectively.)
So Santana has a batting eye that should age well, a glove that is getting better, and a history of durability. While every free-agent contract is a potential drag on payroll, Santana’s history suggests he should be a valuable lineup cog at least during the front end of the deal he receives. While he’s not the top name on the market, perhaps he’s one of the better bets to produce value over a multi-year pact.
He won’t require the years or dollars of Hosmer and to date he’s been the better, more consistent performer. Perhaps it’s Santana who should top the first-base market.