The Ever Evolving Role of Carlos Santana

News out of the Dominican Republic on Friday from ESPN Deportes added a little more mystery to the Cleveland Indians’ plans on the field for the regular season.

Enrique Rojas provided a story on the offseason exploits of Indians’ former starting catcher Carlos Santana and his time playing with Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Republic Winter League.

The former backstop has added the hot corner to the list of his job responsibilities this winter, hardly a new piece of information at this point in the offseason. Santana’s belief that he would receive more regular playing time at third base was much more the surprise.

“Right now, I am preparing myself to play at third base, not at another position,” Santana said to, after translation. “When Cleveland told me that it wants me to play at third base, I took a month thinking about it before accepting. I felt comfortable catching. I have played at first base, but I didn’t feel really comfortable there.”

Santana has had the opportunity of working with Indians fielding and third base coach Mike Sarbaugh, who was sent to assist Santana in his conversion back to third base, a position he had played when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. He has also worked with former Major League third baseman Fernando Tatis.

“I’ve worked very hard. I take everything baseball proudly and don’t want to be an adequate or average third baseman,” Santana said. “I am working to play the position well and I received a great help from Fernando Tatis, who every day ignores his own preparation routine in order to work with me.”

Santana earned his ninth error of the winter on January 12th in a start at third base. After committing three errors in the team’s first five games while at third, he settled in and made just one in his next 13 appearances at third. He has also logged innings at first base this offseason.

Santana is not new to the hot corner.

Santana played 14 of his 32 games in the Gulf Coast League in 2005 at third, making two errors and earning a .956 fielding percentage. He played another 38 minor league games at both the Rookie and Single-A levels and struggled with 12 errors (.846 fielding percentage) in 32 games for Vero Beach while splitting time as a left fielder. In 2007, Santana converted over to catcher and played just five games at third, making three errors in 17 chances (.824). His last game action at third base had been with Inland Empire of the high-A California League, when he handled two chances without incident in a game in 2008.

If the plan is for Santana to platoon with third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, the concept would make some sense and would provide the Indians with an insurance policy in the event that the incumbent starter cannot hold down the spot again.

Santana is a better hitter from the right side of the plate, batting .285 in his career with a .855 OPS. He shows more power from the left side of the plate, but has a career batting average of .239 left-handed.

Chisenhall, meanwhile, struggled again against left-handed pitching last year, batting .111 in 38 plate appearances, dropping his career mark off of southpaws to .194. Just six of his career 23 home runs have come off of left-handed pitching. He has hit .256 off of righties with 17 home runs in his brief career.

Chisenhall, expected to be the Indians’ third baseman of the future when he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft with the 29th pick overall, has yet to fully claim the role.

Last season, he struggled through mid-May, hitting .213 with three home runs, eleven RBI, and 22 strikeouts, with just three walks, in 26 games. He batted .231 with eight home runs and 25 RBI after his recall in 68 games, averaging a strikeout every other game. He played sparingly through September while the Indians were in the midst of their playoff push, starting just eleven of 27 games while the team went 21-6.

Chisenhall was ineffective enough at the plate while manning the left side of the infield that Cleveland manager Terry Francona had to utilize free agent first base and designated hitter acquisition Mark Reynolds at third base.

While Reynolds had played third throughout his Major League career with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Baltimore Orioles, the position was not his strong suit. Coincidentally enough, as Reynolds played more and more in the field, his efforts at the plate took a nose dive from which he never recovered.

Reynolds finished the Cleveland portion of his season with a .215 average, 15 home runs, and 48 RBI. More troubling were his high number of strikeouts (123) in those 99 games and the lengthy hitting slump he endured until his release in August, when he was signed by the New York Yankees.

From the last game of June until his final game with the Indians on August 4th, Reynolds hit just .125 with no home runs, two runs batted in, and 28 strikeouts in 73 plate appearances. He hit just .182 with a .596 OPS when in the lineup as the team’s third baseman, compared to .237 with a .705 OPS as the first baseman and .234 with an .811 OPS as the team’s DH.

The year prior, the Indians were forced to hold on to a defensive-minded third baseman, Jack Hannahan, as their every day third baseman when Chisenhall could not earn the position out of Spring Training. He started the season at Columbus before joining the team from late May until the end of June. He ended the season with a .268 average, five home runs, and 16 RBI in 43 games. Left-handers limited him to a .184 mark with just a pair of doubles scattered amongst seven hits; he hit .298 against right-handers.

Hannahan was not tendered a contract after that season with the expectations that Chisenhall may be ready for the every day duties in 2013.

Francona was able to reduce Santana’s role behind the plate during the 2013 season with the strong emergence of Yan Gomes, who the Tribe had acquired in November of 2012 from the Toronto Blue Jays in what was considered to be a minor trade at the time.

Gomes developed as a strong option in the batter’s box. He batted .294 with eleven home runs and 38 RBI in 88 games. During crunch time down the stretch in September, he missed only three games and put together a career-best nine game hitting streak.

His efforts behind the plate were lauded. He was a defensive upgrade and was recognized for his ability to call a game. He caught 710 innings and, in the same number of chances as Santana, made one fewer error. He finished the season with the second-best range factor per nine innings for an AL catcher (9.23), the second most assists by an AL catcher (65), and the tenth-best defensive WAR in the league (1.8).

Gomes was a threat with his arm, throwing out 40.8% of would-be base stealers (20 runners caught in 49 attempts), the second highest caught-stealing percentage in the American League of catchers who logged at least 200 innings behind the plate. Santana, by comparison, threw out eleven of 62 base runners for a career-worst 18% caught stealing percentage.

When comparing the Indians’ primary backstops last season to their counterparts around the MLB, utilizing a relatively new metric in sabermetrics proves beneficial in showcasing each of their worth at catcher.

Pitch framing focuses on the measurement of how well a catcher makes a ball look like a strike (or conversely, a strike not look like a ball). Sound fundamentals behind the plate, including good pre-pitch placement, not lunging for pitches, and subtly “framing” the pitch within the strike zone for the umpire, are often shared traits of those considered good at the task.

Gomes was the fifth-best catcher in the American League and eighth-best in all of baseball in 2013 at framing pitches, earning 15.4 runs above average (RAA). Using the same statistics, Santana was the 12th-worst in all of baseball with a -7.6 RAA in 2013. It was a marked improvement over his -24.8 RAA earned in 2012, when he recorded the worst RAA of ANY player to receive a pitch behind the plate for the whole season. He also finished at the bottom of the RAA list in 2011 (-24.4).

Where Santana has struggled defensively throughout his career, he has compensated with his bat.

According to Baseball-Reference, Santana finished eighth in the American League last season in Offensive Wins Above Replacement. His 5.5 oWAR trailed teammate Jason Kipnis’s 5.8.

On the defensive side, Santana was the 26th-worst out of 676 AL players and the worst of any player on the Indians this past season with a -1.2 dWAR. Gomes supplied the Indians with a team-high 1.8 dWAR and a 4.0 WAR overall, the third best on the team.

If Cleveland can keep his bat in the lineup but reduce his negative impact on the outcome of games, the statistically-driven Indians would in theory improve his overall contribution to winning. As it stands, despite his significant offensive efforts, his defensive deficiencies drag him down to the 20th-highest overall WAR in the AL.

In 2012, he finished the year 19th in the AL with a 4.1 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, including a 3.9 oWAR and a 0.6 dWAR.

If Santana can add the third base glove to his repertoire, he will provide Francona with even more flexibility with his roster and every day lineup.

Already, Francona has plentiful depth in the outfield, where Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, and Ryan Raburn have seen new additions in David Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, and Nyjer Morgan. Nick Swisher is also expected to see some opportunities in right field while splitting his remaining time at first base and designated hitter.

Infielder Mike Aviles, who bounced all over the field for Francona last year, would presumably see less time at third with a successful conversion of Santana.

Santana, who at the start of the offseason appeared to be destined for a split role between first base and DH with Swisher while filling in as needed for Gomes behind the plate, now suddenly appears to have gained the possibility of a fourth potential position on Francona’s lineup card.

There is little argument that Santana needs to be in the lineup and as much as possible. Oftentimes behind the plate, Santana seemed like a magnet for foul balls and errant pitches. Several such incidents cost him playing time last year alone. The knee injury sustained at the plate in his rookie season stands as yet another reason to find Santana a new home on the diamond to maximize his health and therefore increase his opportunities to contribute to the results of the game.

Despite the work already put in this winter, Santana will undoubtedly have to prove he can handle the position when the team unites in Spring Training next month.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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