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The Pittsburgh Pirates have made their largest free agent signing in six years. The Pirates have signed veteran first baseman Carlos Santana to a one-year deal worth $6.7 million, reports ESPN. The team has not yet announced the signing. 

Santana, 37 in April, split 2022 between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners and slashed .202/.316/.376 with 19 home runs. The batting average is obviously low, but the overall output is essentially league average once adjusted for ballpark and the league's run scoring environment. If nothing else, Santana will be a steady source of home runs and walks for Pittsburgh.

Carlos Santana
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The Pirates lost 100 games in 2022 and are unlikely to contend in 2023, so Santana serves three purposes. One, he's long been regarded as an excellent clubhouse guy who will mentor young players. That's important for a young Pirates team. Two, he's a potential trade chip at the deadline. And three, he brings a level of competence and respectability to the organization.

Here's what you need to know about the Pirates and Santana in the wake of their one-year deal.

The Pirates actually spent money

As noted, Santana is Pittsburgh's largest free agent signing in almost six years. The last time they gave a free agent more than Santana's $6.7 million was December 2016, when they inked reliever Daniel Hudson to a two-year contract worth $11 million and righty Iván Nova to a three-year deal worth $26 million in the span of a week.

Only three times between the Hudson/Nova signings and the Santana signing did the Pirates guarantee a free agent even $3 million:

Kang re-signed with the Pirates after the club declined his $5.5 million option and paid him a $250,000 buyout. That's it though. Only three $3-plus-million signings in almost six years. Hard to believe a major league franchise behaved that way.

Pittsburgh has ranked no higher than 27th in payroll every year since 2017 and FanGraphs estimates their current 2023 payroll at $54.1 million. That includes Santana and arbitration projections, and is still south of 2022's $55.7 million Opening Day payroll. There is no reason the Pirates shouldn't continue to spend this winter, with a catcher and a veteran innings eater as potential targets.

First base was a wasteland in 2022

The Pirates started nine different players at first base in 2022, including three players at least 17 times each, and they collectively hit .206/.264/.337 in 636 plate appearances. That is wretched. For reference, the average first baseman hit .251/.324/.422 this past season. It is no coincidence Pittsburgh's three notable moves this offseason involve first basemen:

The bar at first base has been set on the floor, and the Pirates will be able to work both Choi and Santana into the lineup with the universal DH. Díaz may not last the offseason (he is out of minor league options and must pass through waivers to go to Triple-A) but he's on the roster right now and was a well-regarded prospect not too long ago. He's an option.

With Choi and Santana, the top of Pittsburgh's lineup looks downright competitive. This top five won't win you a World Series, but it won't make life easy on the other team either:

  1. SS Oneil Cruz
  2. CF Bryan Reynolds
  3. 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes
  4. 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi
  5. 1B/DH Carlos Santana

Not amazing, but respectable. Reynolds is a bona fide All-Star, Cruz and Hayes are young with upside (Cruz especially), and Choi and Santana are solid veterans. Bottom line, Pittsburgh's first base situation was untenable in 2022. It was embarrassingly bad. GM Ben Cherington has addressed it early this offseason.

Santana should benefit from the anti-shift rules

The infield shift is going away in 2023, at least somewhat. Going forward there must be two infielders on each side of second base and all four infielders must have their feet on the dirt when the pitch is released. Teams can still station a defender almost directly behind second base to take away hits up the middle, but no longer can they overshift and stick an infielder in shallow right field.

In 2022, no player in baseball was shifted more than Santana, specifically when the switch-hitter batted from the left side. Here are the hitters who saw the shift the most this past season (minimum 300 plate appearances overall):

  1. Carlos Santana: 98.3 percent of plate appearances had the shift
  2. Cal Raleigh: 96.2 percent
  3. José Ramírez: 93.9 percent
  4. Rougned Odor: 93.8 percent
  5. Kole Calhoun: 93.4 percent

On average, lefty hitters saw the shift in 55.0 percent of their plate appearances. Santana was way, way, way above that. The new anti-shift rules are unlikely to turn Santana into a .300 hitter, though I'm sure a few ground balls and low line drives that were turned into outs by the extra shifted infielder will now go for hits. He should see a little boost to his numbers, sure.

Santana could be a trade chip

If Santana comes in and plays poorly, then the Pirates are out $6.7 million. Big deal. Owner Bob Nutting can afford it and it's not like Santana's production is going to be the difference between a postseason berth and October tee times. But, if Santana plays well, the Pirates will have a viable trade chip to help build up their young core and advance the rebuild.

To be clear, Santana won't have a ton of trade value. First base and DH types are always plentiful. Supply outweighs demand and that drives the asking price down. Santana himself was traded last deadline (Royals to Mariners). Here's what he fetched:

  • RHP Wyatt Mills (MLB-ready reliever)
  • RHP William Fleming (11th round pick in 2021 and a Class-A lottery ticket)

The Pirates similarly traded Daniel Vogelbach to the New York Mets for righty reliever Colin Holderman at the deadline, so that seems to be the going rate for a DH type: an MLB-ready reliever. If you can get that low minors arm as a second piece, great. 

I know a reliever and maybe a prospect doesn't sound like a great return, but a) it's better than nothing, and b) you have to build a bullpen somehow. Go look at any contender's roster and you'd find a reliever or three who was an afterthought when he was first acquired, then became a stalwart. Turning Santana into an MLB reliever at the deadline is a reasonable outcome and would add organizational depth. The Pirates would give themselves another bite at the apple as they try to build a competitive bullpen.