December 20, 2017
Christmas may still be a few days away, but on Wednesday afternoon, Matt Klentak was beaming like a kid who just awoke to find a shiny new present under his tree.
And in a way, that's exactly how the Phillies general manager should have been feeling as he and manager Gabe Kapler sat in front of the assembled media to introduce their newest player, former Indians first baseman Carlos Santana.
In this case, however, Santa didn't deliver Santana to the Phillies doorstep.
They had to make that happen on their own – and did so by inking the 31-year old to a three-year, $60 million deal with a club option for a fourth. Klentak always said a big free-agent splash was eventually coming.
On Wednesday, eventually officially arrived.
"Everyone in here knows that the Phillies have been in the midst of a rebuild for the last handful of years," Klentak said during his opening remarks. "But throughout that, our ownership has remained committed and they've reminded us at every turn to pursue opportunities when they exist – anything we can do to make ourselves better. And signing Carlos Santana today represents one of those unique opportunities.
"Phillies fans have heard me talk for the last two years about the importance of controlling the strike zone, both on the mound and in the batter's box. It is our goal to put forth a lineup every day, one through eight, of players who grind at-bats, take pitches, work walks, hit for power, make the opposing pitchers work. There are very few players in baseball who are as good at that as the man sitting to my left [Santana]. He has power; he takes his walks; he works counts; he comes from a winning environment; he has demonstrated his leadership ability; and, very importantly, he has turned himself into an impact defender at first base.
"We're incredibly excited to welcome him today. Carlos joins a young core of position players that makes us all very excited about the lineup we'll run out there next year."
Santana, who spent the first eight years of his career with the Cleveland Indians, is also looking forward to playing in a new lineup – and in a new league.
"I'm excited," said Santana. "I know we have a lot of young players, but my decision to sign here was because Philly wanted me. They believed in me. I know we have a lot of younger players who are hungry to play hard every day. And I can try to help in the clubhouse and help my team try to win every game I can."
With a new manager, a young core, and now some veteran star power, Santana sees the current Phillies in a similar place to where the Indians were in 2013 when they hired Terry Francona as manager. Three years later, they reached the World Series.
The Phils are still a ways away from contending for their first title since 2008. And while Klentak went on to say that he's still hoping to add some starting pitching this winter, the addition of Santana most certainly accelerates the rebuilding plan.
So why now – and how does this change the expectations in Kapler's first year at the helm? After all, it seemed the Phillies were planning to wait until next offseason before really attacking the free agent market.
"I think, as I said in the opening statement, our ownership has explored us over the last several years to pursue opportunities when they exist. I've been asked the question a lot about when will the Phillies spend again. And the answer to that is when the time is right. Sometimes you don't know when the time is right. We've pursued things over the last handful of years that would've made a splash if they had come to fruition, but they didn't. This happens to be the first notable transaction that does that, but we're going to continue to be opportunistic about that.
"The fact that Carlos – Carlos just fits us in just about every way that we would want him to, and that's why we were so aggressive in going after him. As far as our expectations for 2018, I expect us to be the best club we can possibly be given our personnel. Carlos alluded to it – we have a lot of young players. And with that, there's some uncertainty. We know that. The young players don't come with the same track record a veteran comes with, but we believe that a lot of those players have a chance to take a step forward this year.
"And if some of those players begin to take that step forward, we complement that with Carlos Santana in the middle of the lineup, we complement that with a new-look bullpen – I don't really want to place any limitations on what we may do next year. But I would expect us to be a more exciting team next year, for sure."
Adding this to your lineup can't hurt.
Santana's numbers – not to mention what he can offer to a clubhouse that recently traded away one of its veteran leaders in Freddy Galvis – will definitely help the team as a whole, but his arrival will almost certainly change the way Kapler constructs his daily lineup.
What about Rhys Hoskins? If he moves to the outfield, what does that mean for guys like Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr? Could one of those guys be on his way out?
Not so fast, says Klentak.
"This is part of the reason [manager Gabe Kapler] is up here with us. We have talked about this really all offseason since Kap arrived," Klentak said. "We began talking about it in the infield, when the question was, how are you going to make all the infielders work? The game is evolving. We are moving past the days where it's a cookie-cutter lineup, the same nine guys in the lineup – or eight in the National League – every day, hitting in the same spot in the lineup, playing in the same position for 160-162 games per year."
Kapler agrees, adding that the decision to sign Santana had more to do with what the veteran infielder brings to the team than any sort of indication that the team is moving on from some of its young core.
"Carlos alluded to it several times, but we believe in him. So we were attractive to Carlos, at least in small part, because we truly believe in him," he said. "But we also believe in Rhys [Hoskins]; and we also believe in Nick [Williams]; and we also believe in Odubel [Herrera]; we also believe in Aaron [Altherr], and many more on our roster. This is going to give us an opportunity to mix and match, and to put these guys in the best possible position to succeed, by matching them up effectively.
"One of the things that stood out to me about Carlos, first watching from afar and then getting to know him, is absolute selflessness. Absolute flexibility. He mentioned to me, 'I don't really care where I play on the field.' He mentioned to me, '[I] don't really care where I hit in the lineup.' He just wants to play...
So where will Santana see the bulk of his starts? And where will Kapler put him in the order?
"We discussed that. As of right this moment, the answer is we don't know," Kapler said. "I'm guessing that it'll more likely be at first base, right now. I will say this: He hit in the leadoff spot in Cleveland and did so successfully. In the two-hole, I think it's a really important spot in a lineup, gets on base and comes up with men on base frequently. We know Carlos can handle the two-hole. We know that he can slug and hit for power, so the three-hole might be a good spot for him too. Who knows? He can hit anywhere in the lineup, and that's part of what makes him especially attractive is that we can mix and match and move him around."
The Phillies also made sure to reach out to those players listed above, the ones who are likely to be impacted by the free-agent acquisition, starting with Hoskins.
"Quite simply, all of those guys were incredibly receptive," said Kapler. "They're excited. This guy makes us immediately better. I don't know how much time has been spent thus far, but I can look at the last couple of years [of Santana's career] – 600 plate appearances, 600 plate appearances, 600 plate appearances. That's unusual. A guy who walks as much as he strikes out, that's incredibly unusual. Here's a guy who has cut his strikeout rates the last couple of years, that's usual for a guy at his stage of his career.
"So you go and you tell Rhys Hoskins and you tell Odubel and these guys that we're getting this guy to put in our lineup and he's going to play consistently for their club, yeah, of course, they're going to look in the mirror and say, 'What does this mean for me?' But they have no choice but to be excited about this."
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