Moving Carlos Santana Lacks Real Benefit
Let’s assume, for an instant, that Carlos Santana demonstrates the ability to play third base in winter ball. Not Brooks Robinson caliber, but somewhere between Mark Reynolds and David Wright. The question then becomes: what are the odds that having Santana available to play third makes the Indians significantly better?
There are two scenarios that may occur.
First, Santana divides his time between catcher, first base, third base, and DH, playing once or twice a week at each position, making sure that Yan Gomes, Nick Swisher, and Lonnie Chisenhall stay fresh and avoid match-ups they can’t handle.
The second scenario is that Chisenhall can’t hold the third base job and Santana takes over there full-time.
It is not clear in this scenario whether Carlos Santana would be the primary backup to Gomes or plays only in an emergency. Assuming that Gomes would need rest between forty and sixty games, I am not sure that bouncing back and forth that much would allow Santana to develop as a third baseman or stay sharp as a catcher, but I am really not excited about Matt Treanor being in the lineup twice a week, so let’s assume that would be the plan, with Mike Aviles or David Adams filling in at third on those occasions.
Let’s take the first scenario first. Assuming that Chisenhall does not perform poorly in spring training, I would expect him to have the third base job on opening day. That would leave Santana either as the full-time DH/backup catcher, or as a super-sub rotating between four positions in the lineup.
I am unable to recall a team utilizing possibly its best hitter in this fashion, (I seem to recall the Indians trying this with Casey Blake at one point, but I believe it was later in his career) and it is hard to imagine Santana wanting to be a player without a regular position in the prime of his career. It is also hard to imagine Santana developing a high degree of aptitude at any position if he bounces around continually. He does not strike me as the sort of natural athlete who takes to unfamiliar things with ease.
So let’s look at scenario number two: Chisenhall bombs in spring training or is used as a trade piece, and Santana performs well enough at third to be a viable option. If this is how it turns out, I would strongly recommend that the Indians do what the Twins have appeared to do with Joe Mauer and say that his catching days are over, unless they play a twenty inning game and the other catchers either get hurt or pinch hit for.
If Carlos Santana is the third baseman, I say put him there for 150 games next year and see how good he can be. That means the Indians will need a legitimate number two catcher who can play at least forty games, maybe more if Gomes gets hurt. Matt Treanor will be 38 years old on opening day and has never been much of a hitter (career OPS .618). He is average defensively. Personally, if this was the plan I would have hung on to Lou Marson.
The other hole in this scenario is the assumption that Gomes will always be as good as he was last year. Offensively, last year looks like it may have been a fluke, but if his defense holds up you can put up with him hitting .250. If he hits .250, though, you may be better off offensively with Santana catching and Chisenhall at third than Gomes catching and Santana at third. Defensively, one assumes Santana would not be a huge upgrade over Chisenhall, but he should be good enough that the advantage gained from Gomes catching would offset any dropoff resulting from Santana taking over at third. Overall, the move would be probably be a net advantage as long as Gomes doesn’t crater completely as a hitter.
However, playing Santana at third would mean there is no obvious candidate for the DH spot. Playing Chisenhall there would be pointless; if he hits well enough to be the DH you might as well leave him at third. The Indians have four “starting” outfielders and could conceivably rotate them in the DH spot, but the reason David Murphy was brought on was to platoon with Ryan Raburn, so if both are playing someone would always have a platoon disadvantage. The Indians do have David Cooper available, but there are no guarantees he is fully recovered from back problems.
To me, the main goal for whoever makes this decision should be to maximize Carlos Santana’s offense. That is where he has the potential to be special, and any defensive assignment should be chosen with the aim of allowing him to mentally focus on that.
My solution would be to have Gomes and Santana share catcher and DH, with Santana backing up Nick Swisher at first base. Santana would get 50-70 games behind the plate and another thirty or so at first. This would enable Santana to remain in his comfort zone defensively so he can stay focused on his offense.
In my opinion, Carlos Santana is the one guy on this team with the potential to be a legitimate cleanup hitter, and whatever decision the Indians make about his position should be made with maximizing his offensive potential in mind. This is what the Twins have done with Mauer, and the Indians should follow a similar course with Santana.