The Mariners Add Some Much Needed Depth in Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, the Mariners placed Ty France on the Injured List with a flexor strain in his left arm, the result of a collision at first base the day before. This was just the latest blow to a Seattle lineup that’s been wracked by injuries, with France joining Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Tom Murphy, and Evan White on the IL. With very little minor league depth to turn to at first base, the Mariners turned to the trade market to address their sudden need. On Monday morning, they acquired Carlos Santana and cash considerations from the Royals for a pair of pitching prospects, Wyatt Mills and William Fleming.

In the four games since France’s injury, the Mariners used Dylan Moore and Kevin Padlo at first base twice apiece. Neither can replicate France’s critical offensive contributions (a 157 wRC+), and Moore is better suited to fill a super utility role anyway. Enter Santana, who gives the Mariners some insurance in case France’s recovery takes longer than expected. This is actually the second time Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has acquired Santana; the first was back in 2018, when he was part of the return for Jean Segura along with J.P. Crawford. He was flipped to Cleveland just 10 days later in a three-way trade that included Edwin Encarnación and Yandy Díaz.

The switch-hitting first baseman signed a two-year deal with the Royals last year but has been unable to stop a late-career decline that began in 2020. Over the last three seasons, he’s posted a .211/.331/.343 slash line, good for a 90 wRC+, with his 104 wRC+ this year standing as a high water mark. His excellent plate discipline is still intact — he’s one of nine batters with at least 200 plate appearances this season to have walked more than they’ve struck out — but he’s struggled when putting the ball in play.

Last September, Ben Clemens looked into Santana’s issues on contact and found that a lot of it could be explained by his poor results when swinging at fastballs.

Over the course of Santana’s career, he’s been a fearsome fastball hitter. That’s partially because he does an excellent job making pitchers throw him strikes, but it’s also because he knows what to do with them: swing frequently, rarely whiff, and do damage when he connects. He still saw a good number of heaters, because he does a great job of getting into favorable counts, but pitchers were simply choosing their poison. Better to meet him in the zone and take your chances with a ball in play than miss and give him a walk.

That trend no longer holds. He’s having his worst season against fastballs since 2015, one of his worst pre-decline seasons. What’s gone wrong? Pretty simply, everything. His swinging strike rate on fastballs is the highest of his career (excluding a partial 2010 rookie season). His whiff rate when he does swing is a ghastly 17.5%, even with his 2011 season and worse than any effort since. We only have barrel data since 2015, but his barrels per swing mark is quite poor too: 3.4%, ahead of only his 2018 season and in the bottom third of the league.

Santana started this season with the same problem. In April and May, he posted a .220 wOBA against fastballs and looked like he was on track to finish his time with the Royals at a supreme low point. Something clicked in June, however, and suddenly his bat came alive again. He’s slashed .357/.478/.554 (198 wRC+) this month and looked a lot more like his old self again. And as you’d expect, his performance against hard stuff has been the key.

Carlos Santana, vs. Fastballs, 2022
Month Pitch% Whiff% Hard Hit% Barrel% wOBAcon xwOBAcon
April 60.3% 14.3% 42.9% 8.6% 0.146 0.302
May 53.3% 22.9% 26.7% 3.3% 0.200 0.303
June 61.7% 13.0% 50.0% 11.8% 0.418 0.452

Opposing pitchers have continued to feed Santana a steady diet of fastballs, but his results against those pitch types has been much better in June. He’s swinging and missing far less often and making authoritative contact again; his hard-hit rate and barrel rate have both rebounded, and his expected wOBA on contact is as high as it’s been since 2019, his last good season. Not only has Santana figured out how to hit the hard stuff again, but he’s also performing better against breaking balls and offspeed pitches; his .355 and .324 wOBAs on those two pitch types, respectively, are as high as they’ve been since ‘19. His batted ball peripherals all support this rebound, too. His maximum exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate are all right in line with his career norms, even dating back to before this three-year swoon.

The problem for Santana isn’t how hard he’s putting the ball in play; it’s the direction and launch angle of those batted balls. He has always been a dead pull hitter from both sides of the plate, and much of his success can be linked to elevating hard contact to his pull side. But over the last three years, he’s had trouble executing his approach consistently, with stretches of pounding the ball into the ground or spraying the ball around the field — or both! He’s at his best when he can elevate with authority to his pull side, no matter which side of the plate he’s batting from.

Santana should immediately help a struggling Mariners lineup as the everyday first baseman, and if France returns healthy sooner rather than later, either one of them should slide into the designated hitter role easily. As a group, Seattle’s DHs have put together an ugly .163/.262/.293 (67 wRC+) slash line this year. And with the suspensions from Sunday’s brawl with the Angels getting handed down on Monday, the Mariners’ lineup will be even more short-handed in the coming days. Getting a proven major league hitter who might have recently figured out some of the issues that had been plaguing him over the last three years was an important move to make for a team that still fancies itself a contender.

The two pitchers headed to the Royals from Seattle aren’t big names but could see some use in the majors in the future. Mills already has some experience in the big leagues, though he hasn’t found much success yet. A third-round pick out of Gonzaga back in 2017, he throws from an extremely low, sidearm slot. That gives his pitches plenty of funk, and he’s utilized that deception to generate fantastic strikeout rates throughout his minor league career to go along with excellent groundball rates. But his command has recently taken a step back — probably why he had fallen out of Seattle’s future plans — and he hasn’t been able to replicate his big strikeout totals.

Fleming was an 11th-round draft pick out of Wake Forest last year and made seven appearances for the Class-A Modesto Nuts towards the end of last season. He was ranked 26th on our Mariners prospect list, showing good command of his generic fastball and a breaking ball that flashes plus at times. But despite repeating the same level this year as a 23-year-old facing much younger competition, he’s got a strikeout rate of just 20.7%, and his ERA and FIP are sitting right around five. His fastball velocity sits in the mid-90s and can touch 97 at times, giving him some good raw stuff to work with. Until he refines his breaking ball further and perhaps adjusts his fastball shape, he’s likely headed for a role as an up-and-down spot starter or low-leverage reliever.

For Kansas City, this move was more about getting Santana out of the way for some of their prospects who have been blocked in Triple-A, specifically Vinnie Pasquantino. He was called up in a corresponding move and should get a chance to prove that his breakout season can translate to the big leagues. He ranked just outside of our top 100 preseason prospects and fifth on our Royals list. There’s a bit of Santana in his prime in Pasquantino’s game; he parlays fantastic plate discipline into hitter’s counts, where he’s shown an elite ability to get his bat head to the ball with regularity. He has also improved his power output in his first taste of Triple-A this season, pushing his ISO up to .296 with 18 home runs in 69 games. Between Pasquantino and fellow slugging prospect Nick Pratto, the Royals have plenty of options to fill out first base and designated hitter for the foreseeable future. Pasquantino will get first crack at making an impact in the majors, but Pratto should be right behind him.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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CC AFCmember
3 months ago

Ok, I have been dumping on the Royals along with everyone else for continuing to run Santana out there while Vinnie was smashing and Pratto is on the 40 man and would have been worth a look. So credit where it’s due that they stuck with Santana long enough for him to turn it around enough to get something in return for him.

3 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Also credit to the Royals for kicking in enough of Santana’s salary to get back some low-end flyers in the deal. Say what you want about that org, but they’re not as pennywise/poundfoolish as some other low-payroll teams.

3 months ago
Reply to  tz

In the past they’ve been much more so. I remember they refused to deal Ian Kennedy if they had to pay any of his contract down in 2019, and then he completely fell apart in 2020. Maybe things are different with new ownership, though (there were some mitigating factors, but still).

I am also not sure that they would have been able to move him at all if they had paid less money, and these prospects are not exactly a big deal. I like this deal for the Royals too, but I wouldn’t overstate what they did to get prospects back.