Phillies

Good for first-time MLB All-Star Carlos Santana, who probably couldn't have been this player with Phillies

Good for first-time MLB All-Star Carlos Santana, who probably couldn't have been this player with Phillies

Carlos Santana, who had one of the lower approval ratings among recent Phillies because of fan expectations that were unmet, is starting in the 2019 All-Star Game. In Cleveland, his home park.

A lot can change in 12 months.

Santana has always been most comfortable in Cleveland. He was thrilled to have the chance to return to the Indians in the three-team trade this past December that sent Edwin Encarnacion to the Mariners and Yandy Diaz to the Rays. 

Back in Cleveland — where Santana spent his first eight seasons before joining the Phillies on a three-year, $60 million contract — Santana has had a remarkably productive first half. He's hit .290/.411/.541 with 18 home runs and 48 RBI in 79 games. His .951 OPS is 185 points higher than it was last season with the Phillies.

It's hard to explain. There is the comfort of a familiar team and familiar league. There is also the 71-point difference of his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Last season, Santana had a career-worst .231 BABIP. This season, he's at a career-best .302.

Phillies GM Matt Klentak, who signed Santana to that three-year, $60 million deal just before Christmas in 2017, was asked about the first baseman earlier this week.

"You guys know how I feel about Carlos Santana," he said. "You know that I really like the player. Carlos Santana's career has been characterized by high walk rates, more walks than strikeouts and power, and he's a pretty good defender at first base. That's exactly what he is this year. His walk rate is about the same as it was last year. His strikeouts are actually up a little bit. And he's running a BABIP that's about 75 points higher. What comes with that is additional batting average points and additional slugging percentage points. He's the same guy. He's the same guy."

As in, he's the same guy he's been for most of his career ... just not for the one season in Philly, when Santana did walk a ton but hit a career-low .229, also hit .229 with runners in scoring position, and didn't produce enough power to make up for it.

"It's the same guy he's been for a decade," Klentak said. "In years where he has a slightly higher batting average of balls in play, his numbers are going to look better. And in the years where it's slightly lower, like they were last year, it's going to look slightly worse. He's the same player. He really is. It's a 75-point difference. It's a big difference and he's had years like that in his career where he's had the higher BABIPs and those look like his best years."

Klentak was not diminishing Santana's performance this season, he was answering a question about whether the Phillies' offensive philosophies could have anything to do with the glaring difference in Santana's rate stats. 

In any case, it is a cool story for Santana, who deserves the starting All-Star nod. He has been the AL's best first baseman in 2019. Had he stayed here, it's hard to say whether he would have achieved those numbers. Even if he did, the Phillies would be a worse team because they'd still have Rhys Hoskins in left field or would be playing Santana at third base, where passable defense was unlikely to be maintained over 162 games.

Only four active players had played more MLB games than Santana without making an All-Star team: Mark Reynolds, Rajai Davis, Gerardo Parra and Kendrys Morales.

In what has to be the most stunning All-Star berth, former Phillie Hunter Pence also made the AL All-Star team as the starting DH. Pence was having a strong first half but it's still hard to believe given the hundreds of games he missed to injury the last four seasons and his rapidly declining production the last two.

Looking at Pence's 13-year career in totality, it's almost as if he had separate careers as an Astro and as a Giant, with the foggy memory of one calendar year in Philadelphia.

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

The Phillies, after signing Zack Wheeler for $118 million over five years, are approximately $20 million below MLB's luxury tax threshold for the 2020 season.

John Middleton was asked at a news conference six weeks ago about his willingness to exceed the $208 million tax, which for a first-time offender like the Phillies would result in a 20 percent penalty for every dollar they are over $208M.

This is what the Phils' managing partner said:

Here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

The 2020 Phillies are not one piece away from seriously contending for a World Series. Even after the Wheeler splash, they still need at least one more strong regular in the lineup, at least one starting pitcher, a couple semi-reliable relief arms and a more competent bench. The strength of the Nationals and Braves also complicates things.

Suffice it to say, this does not sound like the situation Middleton described above.

That does not mean, however, that the Phillies' front office is treating the tax threshold like a hard cap. If the right opportunity presents itself, they will pounce. If the expected dollar figure for Anthony Rendon somehow doesn't materialize, the Phillies wouldn't pass up a great deal for a great fit just to stay under in 2020.

They're just going to be logical about it. There is reason to leave flexibility for midseason when you have a better idea of how close you are to contending for a division title. Why overpay a middling reliever or starter now when you can potentially acquire a difference-making one in July? 

This is a key season coming up for the Phillies. After 2020, they free up $38 million as the contracts of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson expire. That's money that can be reallocated to a very good starting pitcher and a very good everyday player. Right now, those two contracts are hindrances. Robertson is unlikely to contribute in 2020 and the Phillies desperately need Arrieta to be better than a No. 4.

The Phillies' proximity to that $208 million luxury tax threshold helps explain why they didn't beat the Braves' one-year, $18 million offer to Cole Hamels. As nice as a reunion with Hamels would have been, they could probably replicate his production for half the money or maybe a little more with someone like Wade Miley or Rick Porcello.

The Phillies won't close the door on any free agent, but don't be shocked if their splashiest move came before the Winter Meetings even began.

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