Santana Due for Monster Season in the Middle of Tribe’s Loaded Lineup
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that will need to take their game to the next level if the Indians plan to contend in the American League Central Division this season.
By Steve Eby
When the Indians loaded up on offensive talent this season, nobody should have been happier—other than the fans, maybe—than Tribe catcher Carlos Santana.
The additions of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds should provide a major boost to the Indians lineup and Santana’s production as well, as the catcher is entering his prime years and age 27-season. To start, Santana should no longer be the most feared bat in the middle of the Tribe order. He also shouldn’t be the guy that opposing pitching coaches say to ‘pitch carefully’ to. Santana should be just another one in a line of thumpers in the Indians batting order. This should be the key ingredient for a breakout season for the former #1 prospect.
“I think it’s going to be good for him and for us,” Tribe Manager Terry Francona said in a March 15 press conference. “It’s easy to say to a kid, ‘hey kid, go run the pitching staff…and oh, by the way, you’re hitting cleanup.’ That was a necessity last year, I get it. I’ve been in that situation (before), but I think now we have the ability to back him up a little bit. It not only gives our lineup more balance, but it takes a little of the burden off of him.”
Santana has teased Indians fans somewhat over his first 2+ seasons with the ball club. There is no doubt that he has been productive, as his 27 home runs in 2011 are the most ever by an Indians switch hitter, but he has never really put together a complete season.
When he was called up to add fire to an anemic Indians offense in 2010, Santana was instantly inserted into the third spot in the batting order. He broke out immediately, going 2-4 with a home run and three RBI in just his second game and he only got better from there. Through the first nine games of his career, Santana was batting .393 and through 18 games, he was at .345. He certainly seemed like the ‘real deal’ and a future superstar.
From there, Santana came somewhat back to Earth, as rookies almost always do. Santana struggled a bit for the next month as his batting average dipped to .260. He was still putting up good power numbers and reaching base, however, as Santana had blasted six home runs and drove in 22 RBI while walking 37 times and striking out only 29. All of the positive vibes turned into feelings of concern and doubt, though, when the Indians played Boston in Fenway Park in early August.
In the seventh inning of the August 2 contest, Santana was crushed at home plate when Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish slid hard at full speed into Santana’s left leg while the catcher was blocking the plate on a relay home. Santana was diagnosed with a high grade strain of his LCL and a hyperextended left knee. There were doubts that Santana would never be the same player again, and some people were concerned that his career may have been over.
Santana did, however, recover from the injury well enough to set his franchise mark during the 2011 season. His batting average was a bit of a disappointment at .239, but his 27 home runs and 79 RBI were certainly steps in the right direction. Santana’s impressive numbers become even more so when the fact is considered that Santana was learning how to play a second position—first base—at the same time.
The Indians were happy enough with the production of Santana in 2011 to give him a large, long term contract in April of 2012. After signing his five year, $21 million deal, Santana struggled for much of the beginning of the season, but these struggles may be an effect of the concussion that he suffered in late May.
The low point for Santana statistically was on July 17, when he was batting a pedestrian .221 with only five home runs. It had been since May 15 since Santana had hit a home run. From that point on, however, something clicked and Santana finally seemed to get his bat going.
From July 18 through the end of the season, Santana batted .281 and blasted 13 more home runs to end the season with some pretty decent numbers. Santana batted .252 with 18 home runs for the season—statistics that seemed nearly impossible in July.
“He’s always dangerous,” Francona said.
The strong end to Santana’s 2012 season, coupled with his strong performance in the World Baseball Classic this spring, has Santana poised to break out in the 2013 season. During the Dominican Republic’s perfect run to the WBC title, Santana was the team’s starting catcher and batted .273 (6-for-22) with two home runs, three RBIs, five runs scored and nine walks during the tournament.
“He’s a good hitter,” Francona said. “I think the experience has probably been great for him.”
For Francona, it’s not only Santana’s bat that excites him, however. The new Tribe skipper does not look at the catcher’s hitting ability as his only positive.
“The one thing that surprised me about him a little bit was defensively,” Francona said. “Out of all of the catchers in camp, his (throws to second) had the most carry out of anybody in the camp. I think that sometimes that goes a little bit unnoticed.”
In an interview at TribeFest in January, Francona pointed out what he feels is certainly a catcher’s most important job. “As a good catcher, you’re going to sacrifice some of your at bats because you’re babysitting that starting pitcher. Sometimes it takes young guys a while to understand that—especially a guy that we’re depending on for a lot of offensive production. One of the challenges that I have is to make him understand that if we’re shaking hands when the game is over then he’s done his job.”
In all, no returning Indians player should benefit more than Santana by the offseason acquisitions that the Tribe made. He should be moving down in the batting order and will no longer be the player that gets pitched around the most. This, plus a clean bill of health, should create the perfect storm for big numbers for the Tribe’s backstop.
“I think his better offensive years are ahead of him,” his new manager certainly agrees.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer