As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we’re kicking off this series with the Indians’ presumed 2013 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: It says a lot about his talent that Santana, who turns 27 in April, was arguably the Indians’ best player in 2012 but was still generally considered a disappointment. The switch-hitting catcher hit .252/.365/.420 (according to wRC+, he 20 percent better than the average MLB hitter on a rate basis) with 18 home runs, 76 RBI, and 72 runs scored. Though his power took a dip (.168 ISO, down from .217 in 2011), his trademark plate discipline held steady (15 percent walk rate) and his improved contact ability helped him to cut down on the strikeouts (17 percent strikeout rate).
Despite his less-than-stellar (though improved defense), sometimes-shaky mechanics, and nagging injuries, FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all estimated his value at between 3.2 and 3.7 wins above replacement, making him the Tribe’s most valuable player.
Key factor: Comfort. With the possible exception of his pre-injury rookie stint in 2010, after three seasons in the big leagues Indians fans still have yet to see Santana at ease. A nagging injury, a loss of confidence, pressing too much in the middle of a slump—these have been constant distractions for Santana throughout his brief MLB career, and without them he might very well have an MVP trophy by now. If he’s feeling good and everything finally clicks together this’ll be a fun season.
The question here isn’t whether Santana will have a career year—it’s whether he’ll establish himself as among the best catchers in the game or the single best catcher in the game.
Best-case scenario: Just look at the Bill James projection. Santana maintains (or even improves upon) his gaudy plate discipline numbers while reversing last year’s losses in power. He stays healthy the whole season and plays passable defense, and as the anchor of the American League’s most surprising team his name appears towards the top of quite a few MVP ballots,
Worst-case scenario: Another failure to launch makes it clear that Santana will never realize his potential. He keeps his eye, but he still can’t find his comfort zone at the plate and the power drop proves permanent. Terry Francona is forced to dramatically curtail his time behind the plate and Santana’s diminished bat plays as unremarkable at first base or DH.
What to expect: There isn’t an easy projection for Santana besides his walk rate landing around 15 percent. I suppose you’d bet conservatively on a repeat of 2012 as the most likely scenario, but as a 27-year-old former top prospect he has elite upside. If everything finally clicks, look out.