The Detroit Tigers have themselves in an odd position in terms of their outfield as they consider how to improve the club on the cheap this offseason. They have a whole host of relatively young outfielders between the Tigers roster and Triple-A Toledo, but few have much of a pedigree, and of those who have seen major league time, not a single one has impressed enough to promise much in the future. Some, like Christin Stewart, deserve more time, but the Tigers cannot pass up inexpensive opportunities to add a solid young outfielder this offseason.
Enter Domingo Santana.
The 27-year-old outfielder came up through the minor leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies and then the Houston Astros. He debuted briefly with the Astros in 2014 before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers where he spent several seasons before a deal sent him to Seattle for the 2019 campaign. After an apparent breakout season in 2017 in which he cracked 30 home runs and was worth 3.3 fWAR, Santana has struggled to replicate that production. However, even in an injury plagued 2019 season he still hit 21 home runs in 507 plate appearances.
The real problem with Santana, and the reason the Mariners decided to cut ties, is that he was arbitration eligible on a team that has other young options to try in the outfield. Santana’s value is totally wrapped up in his bat, and a second half collapse last season due to elbow issues probably left the Mariners a little wary as well.
However, for a Tigers team without a single established outfielder, taking a small chance on a more proven hitter than anything they have on hand could help put a more respectable overall unit on the field in 2020 at very little cost.
Why should the Tigers be interested?
Well for one starters he should come cheap, as the Mariners couldn’t find a trade partner and ended up non-tendering Santana off their roster. However, Santana absolutely offers something the Tigers badly lack; home run power and solid overall production offensively. If the Tigers think he can rebound from his summer struggles, there is a potent bat here for the taking.
Santana’s 2019 season was a Jekyll and Hyde routine that is somewhat difficult to unpack. On July 23, he went on the 10-day injured list with right elbow inflammation. Prior to that date, he’d posted an .814 OPS with 19 home runs and a 30 percent strikeout rate. After that date? Santana was a complete mess. His strikeout rate shot up to 45 percent, his power completely disappeared, and he posted a miserable .476 OPS the rest of the way. That elbow issue is going to cast a pall over interest in him this offseason, but if reports are positive he’s a very interesting bounceback candidate for the budget conscious Tigers to investigate.
Domingo Santana 2017-2019
|2019 (1st half)||399||9.3||29.1||0.210||0.850||28.4||39.5||32.1||1.3||18|
|2019 (2nd half||108||12.0||44.4||0.106||0.468||17.4||58.7||23.9||0.0||3|
Santana has always had a lot of swing and miss in his game, but he’s also made up for it by mashing baseballs into the seats with regularity. He’s an interesting hitter who whiffs a lot but also makes plenty of hard contact with home run power to all fields. His average exit velocity was 89.0 mph in 2019 which is basically his career average. That isn’t quite up at the high end, but is tied with players like Gleyber Torres, Carlos Correa, and Nicholas Castellanos. Santana doesn’t hit as many fly balls as you’d like, but he never pops up and so usually gets his money’s worth on contact.
Overall he’s never been worse than league average as a run producer in a season. He’ll draw enough walks to stay somewhat useful when he’s cold, but when he’s on he’s capable of putting on a show at the plate for weeks at a time. The elbow is a concern, but if he’s healthy you can reasonably hope for 20 home runs and solid on base ability with potential for a little more if you can find him enough plate appearances.
Another reason Santana makes sense for the Tigers, is that they have a bit of inside knowledge working for them where he’s concerned. The Tigers recently hired Kenny Graham as their new director of player development. Graham was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Milwaukee Brewers for several years and is familiar with Santana as a hitter, defender, teammate, etc. Whether they prove interested or not, the Tigers should be making a very well informed decision.
Enjoy some Domingo power in this 2019 highlight reel, but don’t overlook his defense. We’ll come back to that.
Okay here’s the catch
Santana legitimately has the ability to help the Tigers offense in 2020, but he’s also something of a problem defensively. The thought of he and Christin Stewart paired in the corners at Comerica Park is, to put it mildly, less than ideal.
Santana was worth negative 17 runs in duty split between left and right field in 2019. His numbers have typically been somewhat better than that, but he’s without question a subpar defender. Stewart has the same issues. Neither is likely to improve much at this point either.
On the other hand, this may not be as big an issue as it seems. Miguel Cabrera certainly isn’t a good bet to DH in all 162 games next season. There will be opportunities to DH one of Stewart or Santana and with some days off and use of defensive replacements the Tigers may be able to mitigate some risk defensively. And if they both hit you’ll live with it.
Perhaps Santana could play some first base, but the fact that neither the Brewers nor the Mariners experimented with the idea doesn’t bode well for a position change.
The Tigers are set on finding themselves a solid veteran catcher this offseason and that should be their number one priority. Hopefully they’ll make a small investment in a first baseman or a utility player to help out. But if they’re actually going to make a noticeable improvement in their offense, they need to find value somewhere else.
It seems pretty clear that the organization is going to spend a little money this offseason, but there is no reason to think they’ll be making any serious investments in free agency at this point. A player like Santana can’t command more than three or four million dollars, tops. He could be a low cost way to sneak an extra major league caliber bat into the Tigers lineup.
Will it happen?
There are some unknowns that make it impossible to say this is a good idea or not. The question of Santana’s elbow and the way he collapsed in the second half is one we can’t answer here. Santana has proven talent with the bat, and he’s still quite young. If the Tigers take a long look at their current outfield group, there just isn’t much to be excited about. If he’s healthy, they could use a hitter like Santana in the mix to add some power production to a lineup that desperately needs it.