PEORIA, Ariz. — In the span of five hours on Jan. 25, 2018, the baseball fortunes of the Milwaukee Brewers, and specifically Domingo Santana, changed drastically in opposite directions.
For the Brewers, a team that was trying to finalize a three-year rebuild project and take a step forward in the National League Central, it was franchise-altering for the better.
Early on that Thursday morning, general manager David Stearns completed a trade to acquire All-Star outfielder Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins in exchange for four players.
About four hours later, the Brewers reached an agreement to sign All-Star outfielder Lorenzo Cain to an $80 million contract.
They were astonishing moves that would pay immediate dividends as Milwaukee made the playoffs with Yelich and Cain both making the All-Star Game and Yelich also winning the National League MVP.
But for Santana, that five-hour span meant a relegation from being starting outfielder, who had 30 homers the year before, to a part-time player coming off the bench. With Yelich, Cain and veteran Ryan Braun in left field, there was nowhere for Santana to play on a consistent basis.
Eleven months later, Santana’s baseball life changed for what he hopes is the better as the Seattle Mariners acquired him from the Brewers in exchange for outfielder Ben Gamel.
“For me, in my career, I was really excited about the trade,” he said.
Santana was a fan of Alex Rodriguez growing up and remembers watching A-Rod with the Mariners. He wanted to be shortstop just like A-Rod.
“I met him and it was a great feeling meeting him,” he said. “I was so fortunate we played against each other as well. It was awesome.”
For Santana, the trade to Seattle represented a new opportunity and a chance to be more than a fourth outfielder. The Mariners acquired Santana to be their everyday left fielder in hopes he could revisit his 2017 production numbers when he posted a .278/.371/.505 slash line with 29 doubles, 30 homers and 73 RBI.
“Santana was one of the most productive outfielders in baseball in 2017,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said after the trade. “He did not have the same opportunities last year, but his age and power bat from the right side make him a very good fit for our club moving forward.”
He won’t be platooned with Jay Bruce. Santana will see the bulk of the time in left field.
“Jay Bruce will play some first base, Jay Bruce will DH,” manager Scott Servais said.
Admittedly, Santana struggled with the reduction in playing time last season. While the Brewers were winning, he never really adjusted to coming off the bench and playing sparingly.
“Your whole career you’ve been playing every day and you prepare yourself to have a good season,” he said. “And then you have a good season so you think you have a job and then that happens. It was really tough mentally, but at the same time you have to work through it and get better it.”
His early numbers last season reflected his struggles in adjusting and understanding his new role. He posted a .249/.313/.354 slash line with 11 doubles, three homers, 17 RBI, 18 walks and 69 strikeouts in 67 games to start the season. Because his playing time was limited, he overthought each at-bat and overanalyzed each performance.
“I was really not in my comfort zone,” he said. “Instead of going up there and get a jam hit and only go 1-for-4 but know I’ll be out there tomorrow, but playing with them (Yelich, Cain and Braun), you felt like you had to get on their level. I got that in my head. And it didn’t work.”
The Brewers eventually optioned him to Class AAA Nashville, where he posted a .283/.401/.487 slash line with 10 doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 35 RBI in 55 games. He returned as a September call-up, appearing in 23 games and posting a .403/.458/.909 slash line in 24 plate appearances with three doubles, a triple, two homers and three RBI.
“I just wanted everybody to know it wasn’t going to be like that,” he said. “I wanted to show them that I could be down and get back up and still compete at a high level.”
Santana came to Mariners and has shown signs of that 2017 production. He entered Friday’s game hitting .444 (8 for 18) with a .500 on-base percentage, a double, four home runs and eight RBI. All four of his homers have been impressive towering moonshots that seem fitting for his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame.
“He’s swinging the bat really well,” Servais said. “He has all spring. He’s been on top of it. He’s got a lot of power. When he hits the ball in the air, it just keeps going. He’s off to good start. He really hasn’t too many rough at-bats at all. He’s in control up there, which is great to see.”
The biggest issue for Santana this spring is the conversion to left field — a position he’d never really played before. He’d been a primarily a right fielder and center fielder in his time with the Astros and Brewers.
“He’s not played much left field at all in his big-league or minor-league career, so that’ll be a little bit of an adjustment for him,” Servais said. “But he’s moving well enough, you could stick him in center field if you had to, as big as he is.”
Santana has looked more than capable in left field thus far into spring.
“I just have to get my reps in out there,” he said. “You have to adjust to the different angle.”
The up-and-down 2018 season for Santana did provide something that he hopes to reach with Seattle — an appearance in the postseason.
“The playoffs are what you dream of,” he said. “When you make it that far, you are in a winning environment. I see some of the same things here. You are just trying to compete and raise the bar.”