Every time a catcher with mediocre defensive skills shows the ability to be a middle of the order hitter, the debate begins about moving him to another position. There is an implied assumption that his offensive skills will be enhanced by not having to worry about handling pitchers and throwing out baserunners, and the risk of injury from foul tips and blocking the plate is too great when it involves a core offensive player. The foremost example of this was Craig Biggio, but there have been others.
A corollary debate involves the relative importance of offense and defense for catchers. While there is no doubt that teams are more willing to sacrifice offense at catcher than any other position, some believe that a catcher who can make a solid contribution on offense without actually hurting the team defensively is among the most valuable commodities in the game. It is so much easier to distinguish value between an .850 OPS and a .650 OPS than it is between Yadier Molina and an average defensive catcher that this is a default position for some statheads.
Which brings us to Carlos Santana. Signed for at least five years at a reasonable salary, one can expect Santana to be a core player for what in baseball is nearly an eternity. The question is, would the Indians get the most value from that contract by keeping him at catcher or by moving him to another position?
There is no doubt that Santana is not a great defensive catcher. He has thrown out 27% of the baserunners who have tried to steal against him, which is about average, and he had 10 passed balls in 2012, which tied for the American League lead. Beyond that, I like a catcher to be something of a badass, the kind of guy who can just make eye contact with an infielder and the guy will move three steps to the right, or who will go out to the mound and tell Ubaldo Jimenez that the next time he throws a waist-high fastball on an 0-2 count he’ll be taking his meals through a straw. I don’t think Carlos has that kind of take-charge mentality in his DNA. There were certainly times last year when Indians’ pitchers would be sailing along with a good outing, then completely lose it. It seemed to me that somebody should have been able to take charge and get things back on the rails before the game was completely out of hand on some of those occasions. If that had been possible, Santana was not the guy to do it.
The key thing for me is that Santana is going to be 27 years old just after Opening Day. If he were 24, I would say give him another year to figure things out. But most of the time, what you get from a guy when he’s 27 is what you’ll get. If he remains at catcher for the next five years I believe he will be at best average defensively. There is also the possibility that if he can just focus on his hitting that he will be offensively elite, the true cleanup hitter the Indians so dearly need. Given his arm strength and overall athleticism, I would consider moving him to left field rather than first base.
Of course, any such moves would be predicated on getting a catcher who could handle the job on an everyday basis. Lou Marson has had some success throwing out basestealers, but that skill seemed to evaporate last year, and the team ERA was actually higher with him catching than with Santana. Also, the only offensive success Marson has had in his career has come against left-handers, so he looks much better as the lesser half of a platoon than as a fulltime catcher. The only other serious candidate on the 40-man roster is Yan Gomes, who was not listed as one of the Blue Jays’ top twenty prospects prior to being traded and who was essentially a throw-in on a trade for a situational reliever. That doesn’t happen to catchers who can potentially hold down the position on a regular basis.
All of which makes it imperative that the Indians acquire or develop a catcher within the next year or two. Regardless of your feelings about moving Santana now, the argument moves only in that direction as he approaches and passes age 30. Even now, a significant injury to Santana would effectively curtail any chance of contending, making the need for a short-term backup glaring. Long term, the best prospect in the farm system is Alex Monsalve, who is 20 years old and played half a season at high-A ball in 2012. In terms of planning, he would in theory be ready for the majors around the time that Santana is 30, which would be ideal. However, neither Monsalve nor Chun Chen, the only other catcher listed among the top 20 prospects in the farm system, is a can’t-miss prospect. Chen is 24 years old and hasn’t gotten to Columbus yet, so his upside is probably Lou Marson; and Monsalve is simply too young and inexperienced to project as a major leaguer.
So it would seem imperative to address this issue. A case could be made for signing a veteran catcher to a one-year contract, if an upgrade over Marson is available at a reasonable price, so that Santana can be rested a couple of times a week and not wear down. More urgently, I would make it a priority to acquire a young catcher who projects to be major league-ready by 2014 and who has the potential to replace Santana as the full-time catcher in three or four years. When assessing potential trades for Chris Perez or Asdrubel Cabrera, it would be more flashy to get someone who would make an impact in 2013, but this is a case where thinking long-term would be the right thing to do.