What are the Milwaukee Brewers waiting for?
Now that the Brewers’ logjam is thorough and complete, it has been expected by many that David Stearns would be motivated to move Domingo Santana as the centerpiece of a deal for a starting pitcher. Santana, coming off a very respectable 2017 in which he was just one double shy of joining the 30-30 club, is the most attractive and movable asset he has. It makes sense, because you’d better believe Stearns is name-dropping Ryan Braun at the outset of every conversation to see if anyone will take the bait and no one is.
Santana is young, controllable and emerging: the perfect player for this bleeding-edge post-Moneyball era Baseball seems to be entering. For all the reasons other teams are interested, those are the same reasons Stearns wants him in his organization. And then there’s this this little tidbit I happened upon Tuesday:
Age 23 to 24 improvements:
Player A: BA +16 / OBP +12 / SLG +28 / OPS +26
Player B: BA +22 / OBP +26 / SLG +58 / OPS +83
Player B is Santana. Player A was Dave Winfield, from his third to fourth year in the league. Santana’s leap from part-time to full-time over the same age span isn’t just the natural development of a prospect, it is punctuated equilibrium and a sign that Santana may be more than a solid role player, but a superstar in the making.
In fairness, it’s too soon to say Santana is going to be a Hall-caliber player; Winfield didn’t start really showing his quality until 1978 at age 26. They’re similarly built but different athletes; Winfield was all-everything in Minnesota and starred in baseball and basketball for the Golden Gophers, the latter lending itself well to his instincts in the outfield and prowess at the wall. Santana also has great instincts in the field, but doesn’t have that acrobatic ability or nearly the arm Winfield wielded with impunity. Santana’s swing is smoother and less-violent than Winfield’s looping, almost awkward line-drive craft, yet both have a knack for taking pitches the opposite way.
Similar, yet different, yet similar.
Santana’s 2017 development has him, at this nascent stage of his career, surpassing a Hall of Famer. I suggest this is why Stearns is loathe to move him, and why he’s still a part of the Brewers organization after two major moves for outfielders that have the baseball world still abuzz about what’s brewing in Milwaukee. Where Santana’s value is perceived to be diminished, it would seem that his value has only increased. Stearns is either content to have that kind of upside in his clubhouse, or is waiting for another team to agree to a stronger return for Santana’s services and controllable years.
There is one albatross to Santana, and one clear numerical distinction between him and his Hall of Fame counterpart: 100, as in Santana struck out 100 more times than Winfield in their age 24 seasons. Winfield knew how to work a pitcher and only struck out more than 100 times thrice in his career, taking roughly three walks for every four strikeouts. By way of underscoring the point, Santana struck out 91 times in 2016, playing in 77 games.
If there is any hope for Santana becoming a legend, it will be in his ability to learn plate discipline and work his strikeout figures down. A .371 OBP with 178 Ks in 2017 is less Dave Winfield and more Adam Dunn, but everything else is there: good power and average at the plate, respectable in the outfield, by all accounts a good guy to have on the team. In my estimation, the trajectory for Santana (of course given the benefit of a full, healthy career) is Joe Carter. The floor is Corey Hart, beleaguered by injuries and forced into an unnatural spot in the batting order, hindering his growth. The ceiling, an evolutionary Winfield.
No matter what, Stearns has a very good problem on his hands, and that problem could be great. The Brewers don’t have to move Santana, just as they don’t need to add a starting pitcher. Entering Spring Training with an embarrassment of riches and depth is quite the contrast to where this team was in January 2016, to say nothing of 2006 or 1996. If the injury bug strikes the outfield, there is a starter ready to come in, be it Braun, Brett Phillips, Keon Broxton or Hernan Perez, even Eric Thames or Jonathan Villar in a pinch. Despite the loss of Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison in the Yelich trade, they rightly still have high hopes for Corey Ray and Trent Clark in the system.
Stearns and manager Craig Counsell are unafraid of the unorthodox, which is part of the reason why they’re right back in the middle of the scrum for the National League Central. Now that they’ve moved from rebuild to contention, it’s retaining players with significant value that will help keep them there. Anything less is a move for the sake of making a move, which is irresponsible to the medium-term viability of the club in the same measure that going in on Yelich and Lorenzo Cain was a bold play to win now.
When it comes to Domingo Santana‘s future with the Brewers, true love waits.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.