No doubt partially out of a sense of jealousy at watching other teams make trades Friday without making one of his own, Jerry Dipoto and the Seattle Mariners added a veteran, picking up outfielder Domingo Santana from the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Ben Gamel and pitcher Noah Zavolas.
After acquiring Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain last offseason, the Brewers faced a bit of a roster crunch when it came to the outfield. On pure merit, it made the most sense for Ryan Braun to see his role shrink coming into the season, but seriously reducing their longtime franchise player’s playing time was something I don’t believe the front office was ever seriously considering. Braun would get some at-bats at first to spell Eric Thames, and between that and various days off and possible injury stints for the quartet, Santana would get playing time and everybody would be happy. And if that didn’t work out, Santana was coming off a .278/.371/.505 age-24 season that could help snag the Brewers a starting pitcher.
Everything worked out quite well for the Brewers, but not so much for Santana. The team was able to juggle the five players in question quite well in the early going, enough to get Santana 24 starts in April, though that was aided by Yelich’s sore oblique that sent him to the ten-day DL. It would be hard to claim that Santana did much with his April playing time, only hitting .237/.321/.269 with no homers. Thames’s thumb injury required the Brewers to have a full-timer at first, and with Jesus Aguilar made the absolute most of the opportunity and the outfield healthy, Santana’s playing time dropped quickly. The return of Thames created another roster crunch and Santana, with an option year available, spent July and August starting for Colorado Springs. He was called up in September, but purely as a reserve and only got a single start for the month.
The Brewers would have had a lot more difficulty trading Santana for a pitcher at this point, so rather than pay him to be a role player, they sent him over to the Mariners for a less expensive role player who can cover center field. Santana’s still relatively young and with three years to go until free agency, he’s more interesting than a pillow contract for a one-year reclamation projection. Even hanging onto Mitch Haniger, Santana likely starts in a corner for Seattle as there’s simply far more promise in his future than that of Jay Bruce.
As Eric Longenhagen noted to me, Zavolas is a former college starter with a low-90s fastball who changes speed well but is missing a solid breaking pitch. Harvard alumni will likely appreciate Zavolas for having thrown a no-hitter against Yale back in April, but he smells a lot like an organizational player to me. He got good results in his debut in the minors, but a 22-year-old ought to be crushing the Northwest League.
From a pure “this is what they project” standpoint, Santana and Gamel come out fairly evenly. I still believe that Santana has some upside remaining, but it will have to involve some kind of improvement in his plate discipline. Santana swung at more bad pitches in 2018 than in 2017, and what’s especially troubling is that unlike some bad-ball swingers, he’s actually quite poor at making contact with the out-of-zone pitches, 14 percentage points worse than the league average in 2018. It feels like there’s a really good player hidden away somewhere in Santana should he adopt a better approach at the plate, but finding that can’t be assured and none of his three previous organizations were able to make him into a better hitter.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.