The first base market is a weird one this offseason. Eric Hosmer has been chasing $200 million that he isn’t worth, while Carlos Santana could have potentially signed for pennies while deserving so much more.
Santana thankfully got something closer to his actual value and departed Cleveland for the Phillies in what has been the biggest free-agent signing of the winter thus far. Meanwhile, the man to replace him with the Indians is none other than Yonder Alonso, who a year ago would have been seen as a rather pitiful plan B for Cleveland, given his slap-happy tendencies, lack of defensive quality and relatively advanced age (30). Cleveland will now pay at least $16 million for at least two years of Alonso’s services.
Boy, what a difference a year makes. That $16 million might actually be a steal if Alonso’s 2017 breakout is to be believed. Alonso revamped his swing and turned into a power monster while with the Athletics, and if that’s the new normal, Cleveland might not miss Santana all that much. But that’s a big if.
The best thing one could say about Alonso in his first five full major league seasons was that he was just OK. He made lots of contact, rarely struck out and kept enough plate discipline to draw a walk. Thanks to his position, baserunning and inability to stay healthy, he almost never profiled as a league average player. Alonso’s career was going nowhere with the Padres and then in Oakland.
He decided to change all of that last year. Alonso’s average launch angle skyrocketed from 10.3 degrees to 19.4 degrees, an absolutely astonishing leap. He coupled that with above average exit velocities and proceeded to demolish every pitch he saw. Alonso ran a .385 xwOBA, a .287 isolated power percentage, and a 146 wRC+ in the first half. A new swing had led to a new hitter altogether. It earned him his first All-Star appearance.
The second half was an entirely different story. Alonso’s power and production disappeared. His xwOBA dropped nearly 40 points. His isolated power dropped more than 80 points. A 113 wRC+ after the All-Star break looked less like the reborn Alonso and more like the Alonso who had plodded through the majors since 2010. Oakland sent him through waivers and he landed in Seattle, where the Mariners didn’t have much use for him, either.
Alonso had permanently changed his approach at the plate. He sold out for power in the most grandiose way without sacrificing too much contact. But the quality of that contact vanished in the second half. As it happens, his swing flattened out slightly in that time frame relative to the first half. He still cranked balls into the air, so it can’t be the only cause for Alonso’s dip in production. It does point to an inconsistent batted ball profile, which might make Cleveland fans nervous.
Which version of Alonso can Cleveland reasonably expect come 2018? It will probably be the version we’re used to. Steamer projects a 110 wRC+ and a below average overall season for Alonso. There’s nothing predictable or stable about his future. The man whose job he’s taking is by contrast a model of consistency. Sure enough, Steamer thinks that Santana will be a three-win player for the Phillies. Just like clockwork.
That probably won’t stress Cleveland’s front office out too much. The team remains the second-best in the American League and should win the AL Central at a canter. The cost of a win means that Alonso could be below average and still pay for the contract. Alonso is a seat filler.
He may also be a lottery ticket. We know that his monster power is in there somewhere. He tapped into it once. He could theoretically do it again. If that happens, then Cleveland will have one of the signings of the offseason on their hands.
No matter what Alonso does, it will be impossible to fill Santana’s shoes. He is one of the most unique and special talents the game has right now. Alonso doesn’t need to be the best version of Carlos Santana, though — he needs to be the best version of Yonder Alonso.
Cleveland fans would sure appreciate it.