Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.
The Indians acquired Santana on July 26, 2008 from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Casey Blake. C.C. Sabathia had already been traded to Milwaukee and Blake’s jettison to Los Angeles was just another step toward the deconstruction of the 2007 Cleveland Indians that fell just one game short of the World Series. At the time of the trade, Santana was a 22-year old at High-A, transitioning from being a third baseman to a catcher. He hit for high average and his power was developing, quickly. In 2007, Santana hit seven home runs in 86 games at Low-A. In 2008, he hit 21 homers in 130 games for three different teams. By the start of 2009, he was a pre-season, top-30 prospect according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.
Santana’s pre-season ranking in 2009 was a prelude to Martinez’s trade to Boston just four months later. With Santana thriving at Double-A Akron and the big league Indians floundering around mediocrity, then-General Manager Mark Shapiro decided to trade Martinez to Boston for Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Even though Martinez had a year and a half left on his contract with Cleveland, the Indians decided to trade their cornerstone catcher and middle-of-the order bat with the thought that they could bring back more for him now than a year later during the final year of his contract.
Santana finished 2009, hitting .290 with 23 home runs and 97 runs batted in at Akron. In 2010, he played the first half of the season at Triple-A Columbus, hitting .316, with 13 home runs and 51 runs batted in, in 57 games. On June 11, 2010, the Indians promoted their top prospect and catcher of the future. Santana debuted, wearing Martinez’s #41 and hitting third, all less than a year after Martinez’s departure.
Six weeks later, Santana’s season was cut short when he injured his knee in a brutal collision at home plate in Boston. Despite just 46 games at the big league level, Santana hit .260, with six home runs and a stellar .401 on-base percentage. His .260 average wasn’t as high as it had been in the minor leagues, but his promise made him appear very capable of 20 home runs and a .300 batting average, like what Martinez was producing the same season in Boston. It was fair of Cleveland to think they had a replacement for Martinez on their hands. In the future, Santana would hit .300, or hit 30 home runs. If he really shined, possibly he could do both.
And that’s really where the comparisons between Santana and Martinez come to an end. From that point, their careers have turned in different directions.
Santana has only eclipsed his original .260 batting average once, hitting .268 in 2013 and has never hit 30 home runs. His career-high best of 27 came in 2011 when he hit .239. Instead, Santana has been more, “boom-or-bust,” as a hitter. While he’s always kept a keen eye at the plate—no better evidence than his American League leading 113 walks this past season—he’s never hit for average. Instead, Santana provides a lot of walks, more strike outs and above average power (but not the level of power once believed to be in his bat).
At this point, Santana is likely past development. In 2014, at 28-years old, Santana hit .231, with 27 home runs and 85 runs batted in to go with those league leading walks. His first two months of 2014 were possibly the worst two months of his career as he hit .151 in April and .162 in May. He needed two straight months of hitting over .300 to get his batting average back above the Mendoza Line for the season.
Santana has always had some kind of excuse tied to his offensive production. In 2011, it was the lingering effects of his knee injury. In 2012, he suffered a concussion causing him to struggle badly in the middle of the season. In 2013, he couldn’t hit in the middle of the order early because his responsibility to the pitching staff was too much for him to handle both. In 2014, the position change from catcher to third base in spring training supposedly had an impact on his performance at the plate. At best, Santana is an unsteady, poor man’s Martinez, but he could also be seen just a rich man’s Adam Dunn (home runs, walks and strike outs).
Looking to 2015, Santana will be expected to be the Indians’ primary first baseman and occasional designated hitter, making the comparisons to Dunn even easier. Defensively, he’s slightly below average at first base, but a major upgrade compared to Nick Swisher. No longer does Santana have the value of an offensive-minded catcher, but instead an average offensive valued first baseman. However, he remains the best power threat the Indians currently have in their hot and cold lineup.
With two years remaining on Santana’s contract, the Indians will likely try to build an offense around him. However, Cleveland may consider trade offers now that Santana’s offensive value is diminished with his position change and Swisher’s albatross contract. Santana’s walks and home runs would still garner value on the trade market. With two years on his contract remaining—and a potential $12 million option for 2017—he could bring back value and flexibility to improve a poor defense and mediocre offense.
While unlikely, maybe Santana and Martinez have one similarity remaining.
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