First baseman Carlos Santana has some of the best rebound potential on the free agent market, and with the Pittsburgh Pirates needing first base depth, Santana seems like a perfect fit.
Right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates have essentially zero first base depth. If the season were to start right now, their best option would be slotting Miguel Andujar over at first. First base is an issue the Pirates need to solve this off-season, whether through trade, through free agency or promoting a prospect. While the free agency market may have very few good options, one rebound candidate is veteran Carlos Santana.
The 13-season veteran had one of his worst campaigns in 2022. Through 506 plate appearances, Santana batted .212/.316/.376 with a .308 wOBA and 102 wRC+, which while not the worst numbers in the league, were far from good, especially for a first baseman. Although Santana still drew walks at a 14% rate, he posted the worst OBP, second-worst wOBA, OPS, and third-worst wRC+ in his career. The only other silver linings were he hit 19 home runs with a .174 isolated slugging percentage and put on a defensive clinic at first base with +4 DRS and +3 outs above average.
So for what reasons are there that Santana has bounce-back potential, even though 2023 will be his 14th major league season and age-37 campaign? While Santana did not post good numbers, he had a fantastic .352 xwOBA, which was in the top 88th percentile of all batters. Overall, he had an expected triple-slash of .253/.361/.435, which would be a similar slash to Justin Turner, Luiz Arraez, and Josh Bell in 2022. Baseball Prospectus’ DRC+, which is a more predictive version of wRC+ or OPS+, pinned him at 117.
Despite his advancing age, raw power is not an issue for Santana. He was still in the top 81st percentile of average exit velocity at 90.7 MPH and the top 76th percentile of hard hit rate at 44.9%. Those both rank top three in his career. Despite this, he had just a .209 batting average on balls in play. While Santana’s career BAbip of .258 shows he’s never been much of a high-average hitter, approaching the Mendoza line is unsustainable.
Not only will Santana’s BAbip likely increase, but he also has an even greater chance with the new shift rules that force teams to tone down their player positioning. Santana was the most shifted on batter in 2022 when he batted left-handed. The switch-hitter had no problems hitting against left-handed pitching, posting a .265/.387/.402 line and 134 wRC+ vs. southpaws, but when he faced right-handers, the first baseman slashed just .178/.288/.366 with an 88 wRC+.
The new toned-down shifts are definitely something to keep in mind with Santana. Santana’s under-the-hood metrics love him, and he has a better chance now more than ever to rediscover his stroke. He’s also a better option than many of the other first basemen on the market. He can play the position to an above average degree, and provides both a strong walk rate and strikeout rate (this is the 11th season in a row he has put up a sub-20% strikeout rate). The Pittsburgh Pirates need a first baseman, and Santana is an obvious rebound candidate. He has the opportunity to be one of the better under-the-radar free agents to look out for this off-season.