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Santana Has Many Options, but Few Positions

Santana Has Many Options, but Few Positions

| On 06, Jan 2014

It’s a small sample size, but it isn’t a good one.

Carlos Santana’s third base experiment is not off to a good start. Despite playing just eight games in the Dominican Winter League, Santana has made four errors for Leones del Escogido. The last time Santana tried to play third base it wasn’t successful, either. He made 12 errors in just 38 games at High-A, Vero Beach in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system in 2006. It’s the reason he was moved to catcher.

It’s likely the Indians will not judge Santana’s ability to play the hot corner based on just eight games, or his minor league career eight years ago, and give him an opportunity to play third base early in Spring Training. However, it appears he has a long way to go before the Indians would consider using him in even an emergency or minor role.

So, the question remains, where will Santana play in 2014? After hitting 20 home runs, driving in 74 and hitting .268, with a .377 on-base percentage in 2013, the question isn’t a matter of if Santana will play, but just where. As the roster is currently constructed, the man with no position is probably the Indians’ Opening Day cleanup hitter.

Indians manager Terry Francona made it clear shortly after the 2013 season ended that Yan Gomes would be the team’s starting catcher in 2014. It wasn’t much of a surprise considering Gomes had started the majority of games behind the plate in August and September and is substantially better defensively behind the plate and has a much better throwing arm. If Gomes hits in 2014 the way he did in 2013, he’ll probably play at least five days a week behind the plate.

Santana could still catch in a back up role when Gomes receives a day off. One fear though is that Santana’s already questionable defense behind the plate will only erode if he is not playing there often. Catcher is a very difficult position to play, playing it well while only playing sparingly is even tougher to execute. Santana was only ever average at best behind the plate, and often worse.

He has also played first base in 116 games since 2011 and will no doubt see more action there in 2014. However, again Santana will not be the best defensive option at that position. Platooning with regular first baseman Nick Swisher is a possibility, but Swisher is clearly a better defensive option with better hands and footwork around the base. Infielders have a much greater trust in Swisher to make the play on their poor throw than Santana.

Swisher and Santana both have to be in the Indians lineup, every day.  Swisher probably will not play a lot of time in right field considering his shoulder issues last season and the Indians signing of David Murphy this winter. It’s expected that Ryan Raburn and Murphy will platoon in right field. Swisher can see some time in right field, but probably not any more than the 27 games he played there in 2013. That’s not enough to more than lend first base to Santana on occasion, much like Gomes can do behind the plate.

What’s likely, if nothing changes to the roster in the next six weeks before Spring Training, Santana will be a back up option at a few positions and will be the designated hitter the rest of the time. Unfortunately, designated hitter is Santana’s best position, defensively.

And while it seems like the best move on the surface, it also creates a couple problems. First, it robs the Indians of much of their flexibility they touted a year ago. In 2013, they did not have a regular designated hitter and it made Francona’s ability to get his nine best hitters into the lineup each day a much easier task. Second, it puts the Indians two catchers in the lineup every day. With Santana as the designated hitter, any time he would have to move behind the plate the Indians would lose the DH and have to have a pitcher in the lineup. It might not happen often, but it will happen more than an American League team is comfortable. And lastly, if Santana becomes the Indians regular designated hitter, it makes Jason Giambi’s role on the team very expendable. No team has a back up designated hitter, much less a 43-year old that doesn’t hit .200. Cleveland remains committed to Giambi on the roster and the leadership he provides.

So, the question remains, where will Santana play in 2014?

Photo: Getty Images

Comments

  1. nico

    Seems like he’s going to get the majority of starts at DH. It’s frustrating for all the reasons you mention, but here we are. Certainly not ready to give up on Gomes behind the plate, but it’s a long season. Gomes could break down, get hurt, or just generally fail to hit like he did last year. Maybe Santana gets more like 40 starts behind the plate, and we hope for the best.

    I do wonder what this means for the Opening Day roster. Is the plan to stash Adams and Cooper in Columbus until injuries dictate their promotion? Was it advisable to let Marson walk? With a four-man bench and slightly less positional flexibility than last year, it seems Giambi is destined for a coaching role (or several long trips to the DL).

    It could get messy, but we’ll have to wait and see what the next few months bring. If Chisenhall falters again, I’d cringe through some poor defense out of a Santana-at-third scenario and let it be his job to lose. We shall see.

  2. Avory

    The real elephant in the room is not mentioned anywhere above: playing Santana at DH not only robs the value Santana provides as an elite hitting catcher, but robs Carlos Santana’s career value. Carlos turns 28 as the season starts; how will it sit with him to play DH at that age when he knows very well that 2/3 of the teams in baseball would kill to live with his deficiencies behind the plate? Carlos (and his representatives) know very well that unless Carlos continues to catch, his skills there will erode, and his value will wither. And the Cleveland Indians have to know this as well. And how can a team in Cleveland’s situation allow such value to simply vaporize? The answer is they can’t. And Carlos can’t. Which is why Carlos and the team were desperate enough to see if the answer might be in the field at third base. If it isn’t–and I would be surprised if it were–the solution to this problem is not one that many of us who like Carlos wants to hear. He’ll have to be dealt for pieces that fit better into our current framework. Oh, why couldn’t Gomes have been a hard-hitting, excellent defensive corner outfielder? It’s just our luck.