As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we’re kicking off this series with the Indians’ presumed 2012 starting catcher: Carlos Santana.
Background: Santana, then 18, signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic. He came to Cleveland along with right-handed pitcher Jon Meloan in the 2008 Casey Blake trade and immediately became the Tribe’s top prospect—Baseball America ranked him No. 29 on its 2009 Top Prospects list, and he came in at No. 10 before the 2010 season.
Last year: Santana was fantastic in his first full MLB season, hitting .239/.351/.457 with 27 home runs, 79 RBI, and 84 runs scored, even stealing five bases for good measure. He made up for his low average with great plate discipline (14.7 percent walk rate) and impressive power (.909 Power Factor) as the Indians’ primary catcher. FanGraphs had him at 3.8 wins above replacement, while Baseball Prospectus had him at 3.6 WARP and Baseball-Reference put him at 3.6 WAR.
What we need to see: There’s nothing specific we need to look for from Santana that he really needs to improve—barring injury, he’s the Opening Day catcher and a likely All-Star. The biggest variable for Santana is his batting average on balls in play. The league-average BABIP the last couple years has been a little under .300, but in 850 career plate appearances Santana has a hit rate of just .266, including a .263 mark last year.
BABIP is notoriously slow to stabilize, and given the relatively small sample size and Santana’s power the low ranking could just mean he’s been unlucky. On the other hand, he’s a fly-ball hitter and he doesn’t have great speed—attributes that could permanently depress his hit rate. He’s already a very good catcher; with some BABIP normalization he could be one of the best players in baseball.
Also noteworthy is that these three projections give him an average BABIP of .281, suggesting that his low hit rate is partially representative of his true talent level but that he’ll still benefit from some regression in 2012.
Best-case scenario: Santana picks up some extra power as he enters his age-26 season while maintaining or even improving upon his already-established plate discipline prowess. The extra power and some better luck push his average closer to the .280 range and his on-base percentage past .400. He makes a run at 40 home runs and the value of his bat is further inflated by playing almost exclusively catcher. An MVP trophy is cast in his honor.
Worst-case scenario: Santana reaggravates his knee and cannot play catcher on a regular basis. His power numbers stagnate and his walk rate falls as the league figures out how to pitch to him, and his low BABIP turns out to be indicative of his true talent level. Forced to spend most of his time at first base or designated hitter, he loses his positional and becomes an unexceptional corner infielder.
Most likely scenario: Santana gets a small boost from a higher BABIP, as well as minor improvements in his power and plate discipline numbers. The majority of his starts will be from behind the plate, and while the 50 or so games he’ll play at DH or first base will depress his value he’ll hit well enough to hold his own at any position. He has an All-Star-worthy season and stakes his claim as the Indians’ best hitter.