If you regularly read my work, you may have noticed that I write an awful lot about Astros prospects. The reasoning behind this is two-fold. The Astros have one of the best minor-league systems in baseball, with loads of talent at pretty much every level. Furthermore, I happen to live less than a half-hour away from their Triple-A facility in Oklahoma City, and I’m lucky enough to be able to see these guys play pretty much anytime I want to.
I’ve already written plenty about Jon Singleton and George Springer, and today feels like as good a time as any to discuss Domingo Santana. The 21-year-old came into 2014 as the No. 8 prospect in Houston’s system according to our own Marc Hulet, a ranking more indicative of Houston’s organizational depth than of Santana’s talent.
Standing 6’5″ and weighing in around 225, Santana’s best tool is exactly what you would expect from a guy his size. He has easy plus power thanks to his huge frame and his bat speed, which is very quick for a guy his size. After hitting 48 home runs over the last two years in High-A and Double-A, Santana was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A to start 2014.
Santana showed few signs of being out of his league, finding immediate success in Triple-A. He hit .292/.342/.481 with three homers in April, and has been even better in May, with a .290/.377/.520 slash line and six home runs — impressive figures for a 21-year-old in the Pacific Coast League.
The big knock on Santana is his hit tool, and despite posting an .842 on-base plus slugging last year, his .252 batting average validated concerns over his ability to hit for average. This year, his .291 is a big improvement, but his batting average on balls in play is a full 73 points higher than it was last year, sitting at an unsustainable .389. His strikeout and walk rates (9.2% BB-rate, 28.9% K-rate) are nearly identical to the numbers he put up last year (9.7% BB-rate, 29.2% K-rate), so it seems, on the surface, that he’s simply getting lucky more often this year.
As it turns out, that’s not really the case. A quick look deeper shows a drastic change in his batted-ball profile from last year to this year:
- 2013 (Double-A) – 16.5% LD, 41.4% GB, 42.1% FB
- 2014 (Triple-A) – 26.4% LD, 52.9% GB, 20.7% FB
The GB/FB ratio looks really weird this year, but the rates are normalizing after Santana somehow hit fly balls at just a 13.8% rate for the entire month of April. Much more importantly, as indicated by that 26.4% line-drive rate, Santana is absolutely murdering Triple-A pitching right now, as there are just three players in the PCL hitting liners with greater frequency this season. Those three players (Tyler Ladendorf, Allan Dykstra and Jeff Francoeur) are, on average, more than six years older than Santana. In fact, he’s the youngest player in the top 50 for line-drive rate in the PCL.
As you might surmise from his still-high strikeout rate, Santana is a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition at the plate. Simply put, the guy does not get cheated up there. This approach has clearly been lending itself well to producing hard contact, but it also produces a whole lot of swing and miss.
I recently wrote an article entitled “Jimmy Nelson And The Art Of Being Almost Ready,” discussing how the Brewers farmhand, for the most part, looks the part of a major-leaguer, but has a couple specific traits holding him back at present. Santana has also mastered the art of being nearly-but-not-quite there.
While his numbers look like he’s ready to produce in the majors, I’m concerned that Santana’s approach is simply too aggressive at present to produce a respectable batting average at the major-league level. I’m not sure where to find first-pitch swing data for minor-leaguers, but watching him play this season, I’m legitimately surprised whenever he takes the first pitch. He also struggles against quality breaking balls, leading to far more ugly swings than you’d expect from a guy with an OPS of .860.
Unlike his teammate Singleton, who I believe is at least a league-average major-league talent right now, I would like to see Santana spend some more time working on his approach in Triple-A before getting the call. There are quite a few holes in Santana’s swing and, while his bat speed makes up for this somewhat, I worry that major-league pitchers could exploit those holes in a big way. I wouldn’t like his chances of hitting an inside fastball or a plus curveball in the majors right now, for example.
At the end of the day, you have to keep in mind that this is a 21-year-old kid who is flat-out embarrassing Triple-A pitchers on a regular basis, and that is a wonderful indication that Santana is developing into an above-average corner outfielder. His insane line-drive rate speaks volumes on its own. If he can refine his approach a bit to where he could sustainably hit in the .250-.260 range in the majors, Santana has 30+ home-run potential at his peak.
Parting Thoughts: It’s funny thinking back on the trade that sent Santana to the Astros in the first place. He was actually the player to be named later in the Hunter Pence deal back in 2011 that also brought in both Singleton and Jarred Cosart. At the time, the 18-year-old Santana was viewed as a toolsy, but extremely high-risk commodity. Looking back on the trade now, in return for Pence, the Astros got two potential 30+ HR hitters, a decent bullpen arm (Josh Zeid) and a solid back-of-the-rotation starter (I still think Cosart could be an elite reliever, but that’s a topic for another day).
The next season, in the midst of a disappointing 2012, the Phillies traded Pence to the Giants, landing Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin and Tommy Joseph. Of the three, Joseph is the only one still with the Philadelphia organization, and he has played in just 85 minor-league games as a result of near-constant injuries since being acquired. He is currently on the disabled list in Double-A with a sprained wrist.
Bear in mind that the circumstances were drastically different — the Astros traded Pence when he still had another season of team control, while the Phillies dealt him as a short-term rental under the restrictions of the new draft pick compensation system. Still, it’s an incredibly stark indicator of how much the Phillies really spent on 155 games of Hunter Pence.
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