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2018 Phillies Preview: Carlos Santana can make an impact across the board

This may be Maikel Franco’s last chance to become Carlos Santana.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Phillies have swapped in veterans over the years, having climbed over the bodies of countless Jeff Francoeur’s, Delmon Young’s, and Daniel Nava’s to get to this point. With a three-year deal signed just before Christmas, the Phillies gave 31-year-old Carlos Santana a longer, more intentional look than his predecessors, and in doing so sent waves of chatter through the rumor mill.

Eventually, it died out when the Phillies did none of the predicted follow-up moves over the course of many, many weeks: They didn’t sign a starting pitcher. They didn’t trade one (or more) of their young outfielders. They just sat with Santana and forced us to look at him in a vacuum. What we saw was what he is: a strong imported presence who can set the tone at the plate and benefit a lot of areas of this team.

Which ones, you ask?

Maikel Franco

Imagine the Maikel Franco you’ve always dreamed of.

What’s he doing? Crushing baseballs and demanding that everyone stay in their seats to watch? Thousands of fans weeping as Franco hammers dingers into the night sky in silence, save the gentle sobs of his prisoners?

Yes, yes; we’ve all had the fantasy. But, except for one weekend in New York a long time ago, it’s not even close to reality. At this point, we would settle for a couple more walks or getting on base consistently. Look at this passage, written in our version of reality and somehow not an alternate one in which Franco has surpassed all expectations:

Franco looks like he belongs in the Major Leagues. He is hitting for both power and average, and he is driving in runs. Franco is a major part of the Phils’ future.

That snippet from a June 23, 2015 article gives us a glimpse into a timeline in which we look back with wistful nostalgia at statements of Franco’s powerful potential, rather than scoff at what we had believed to be true. Instead, the at-bats have been desperate, the numbers have been disappointing, and it would seem that with Franco, the Phillies are one season away from losing their patience entirely.

An early winter rumor had been that Franco was following Santana down to Clearwater, indicating a mentorship was already in motion. And then, things were made clear to everyone.

There is much to be gained from buddying up with the Phillies’ big winter signing. For instance, Maikel could tighten his approach at the plate, or at least learn not to do this.

One of the best examples we can offer of Franco’s flawed plate approach is his at-bat against Brad Ziegler of the Diamondbacks on June 29, 2016. After going 2-for-2 with a double and a home run, he came to the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, no outs, tie game. Ziegler couldn’t stop throwing inaccurate meatballs. But Franco couldn’t connect with them:

Six consecutive breaking balls, all with similar velocities and movements. Even crazier, Franco fell behind 1-and-2, then he laid off two straight breaking balls away. Those pitches were almost identical to the pitch that Franco chased. He knew the right thing to do, once. He knew the right thing to do, twice. Then he caved. He knew what the breaking ball looked like, and he caved.

This is the sort of thing the Phillies are sick of seeing, and it’s the sort of thing you bring in Carlos Santana to not do. There’s a reason that even somebody like Franco, with little discipline up there, is questioned as to his decision making during that pitch sequence—Ziegler was making it easy.

The answer to the softly whispered chorus of “...why?” that followed that strikeout was, of course, Franco was having a stellar game and wanted to clobber the s*** out of the ball. But the lesson here is, just as offense sometimes comes down to “hitting it where they’re not,” sometimes you’ve got to “not swing at where it isn’t.” Or something. Whatever.

I shouldn’t be passing out lessons to big league hitters anyway. The point is that with a professional base-reacher playing across the diamond from him for a full season, perhaps there are some adjustments Franco can gain and in turn become the more effective batter we’ve always imagined him to be. Perhaps there can be enough exemplary ABs on a nightly basis that struggling young hitters can at least get off the ground floor.

The Young Offense

It always feels abstract, formulating how young players will digest the example of an older one. How the hell can we really know or guess what a group of guys, chocked full of their own learning curves and neuroses, will learn from being around somebody else? I’ve never wanted to assume that an incoming veteran will be anxious to have a row of ducklings following him around, quacking questions at him. But it does seem to happen in this sport, and the Phillies likely wouldn’t have brought in Santana without hoping that exact dynamic wouldn’t form in some capacity.

While there are those, such as Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford, who have shown signs of maturity or grace at the plate, you’ve still got some classic flailers in there, such as the aforementioned Franco, Odubel Herrera on occasion, or anybody else who thinks they can free-swing their way out of an 0-for-20 stretch. Learning from Santana’s example in the dugout every day is a boon for young hitters, who may lean more towards aggressiveness as a remedy than the calculated patience that has logged Santana his average .363 OBP and 120.5 wRC+ since 2014. With Santana near the top of the lineup, getting on base, he’s can act as a bulldozer for the hitters in front of him: Cesar Hernandez, who has proven adept at getting on before him from the lead-off spot, and Herrera, of whom projections are showing that he could straighten out his OBP as well in 2018, after watching it shrink about 40 points in 2017 from .361 to .325.

This is all putting a lot of pressure on Santana as an example from which to learn. But we’re not suggesting that he hold powerpoint presentations before each game after staying up all night analyzing the opposing starter’s movements, habits, superstitions, and family tree. Just that he be himself—the steady, healthy, patient batter with an approach proven to be effective—and give those who are looking to pick something up from the only guy on the roster with at least 143 games of experience in each season for the last seven years the opportunity do so.

Gabe Kapler

There aren’t a lot of guys who have been here for a while. One of them is the man in charge, Kapler, whose freshness exists not only in his young managerial age, 42, or in the quality of the catering he’ll provide, but in the fact that he’s coming from outside the Phillies organization. The Phillies have a tendency to not hire or fire anyone; they, for a long time, shuffled people around the different positions within the franchise: Charlie Manuel, Ed Wade, Ruben Amaro, Pat Gillick, Larry Bowa; they’ve all held multiple jobs—Bowa especially. Which is a wonderful testament to the tight-knit family the Phillies have made themselves, but accruing fresh talent, then, becomes a departure from the norm.

Kapler has not only never been a member of the Phillies before, he’s never been a big league manager. He’s not out of his element, but it’s fair to foresee an adjustment period. One thing Kapler has repeatedly done is state how open he is to make those adjustments, and as each new situation presents itself for the first time in his clubhouse, having a veteran player to act as a liaison if needed is invaluable (Through Kapler doesn’t seem like a guy who communicates through other people). Santana, too, has embraced openness throughout his career, playing anywhere the Indians moved him: Catcher, third base, first base, DH, and taking reps in the outfield in 2017 when the Indians started experimenting with him in left field, leading his then-manager Terry Francona to gush, “Carlos is really open to it... I love the fact that he’s willing to.”

The role of veteran players in the clubhouse, which Santana has been for years, is classically to channel their experience and perspective into aiding those with less of it in order to make the whole team better. But Santana, being the in-house vet, is uniquely linked to Kapler in a different way, too: he’s never been a Philadelphia Phillie before, either.

Outlook of Rebuild

I mentioned this when talking about Rhys Hoskins, as well, as the two are linked in regards to the Phillies winter moves leading into this season. But the acquisition of Santana served as a jump forward for the Phillies toward contention. Their biggest free agent signing in years, his three-year, $60 million deal signaled that the Phillies had a vision for the future: It had Santana at first, Hoskins in left, and, presumably several more players—even a pitcher or two? Who’s to say. David Schoenfield of ESPN called it “a clever and creative move by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak,” for many of the reasons listed above. This isn’t a playoff team yet, but with impact like this—and more to come—it gets closer with every move.