Is there any player on the Cleveland Indians roster right now that is more polarizing than Carlos Santana? If you want an instant, animated response from most fans, a discussion about Santana will get even the average fan fired up a bit.
A fair number of fans have expressed their frustrations with Santana, who has bounced around the field, but not so much the lineup, while being a streaky hitter. In fact, the inconsistencies at the plate have driven his batting average in each of the last two seasons all the way down to .231. While he made up for it with a career-high-tying 85 runs batted in, the 19 home runs from the switch-hitter were the second-fewest he had hit in any one full season in the Majors, yet happened to lead the club in 2015. His slugging percentage for the year was nearly 50 points below his career average.
Other fans accept the Indians first baseman and cleanup hitter for what he is – a man playing out of position and in the wrong spot in the lineup, not due to any errors by manager Terry Francona, but a lack of better options at first base and for the fourth place hitter. He will get into slumps, his average will never be among the best in the game, but he will get on base and drive in a chunk of runs over the course of the year, even with a fluctuating number of home runs over his career.
He has finished no lower than third in the American League over each of the last five seasons in walks and led the league in the category in 2014 with a career-high 113. He does have value and he does contribute, even if it is not in the power-hitting form that fans have hoped for since he made his debut with the club in 2010.
With all that said, what do you do with the softer-slugging Santana?
For Indians management, handling Santana is a conundrum.
Defensively, he cannot be an everyday catcher. Even though he has a career .991 fielding percentage behind the plate, he was prone to passed balls and wild pitches, the latter of which could have in part been his fault to a degree. His once-impressive rate of throwing out would-be base stealers dropped from 35% in 2010 in a partial season to 18% in half a season behind the plate in 2013 before he was replaced as the regular backstop by Yan Gomes.
His skills at first base are questionable. He has a career .995 fielding percentage, but was below league average in range factor in 2015 after being on the positive side of that rating the previous year. While he may not have been charged with many errors (just three in 1,141 chances last season), his poor footwork and other bad mechanical adjustments at first led to uncalled errors or errors for teammates around the diamond. For those utilizing the old scouting technique known as “the eye test”, Santana does not get a passing grade at the position. A back injury that he referenced at season’s end could have contributed some to the decline in his mechanics at first during the year.
His .909 fielding percentage at third base and massive slump at the plate to start the 2014 season ended his experiment at the hot corner after just 26 games. He has expressed before that he is not comfortable as a regular designated hitter at this point in his career.
Offensively, Santana may be seen as more of a cleanup hitter if the power numbers were higher. For what he was, Santana was eerily consistent with the home run, hitting three in every month of the season with one in the four games of October. An ideal cleanup hitter, however, would not see run-production dip to just nine RBI in 26 games in June while hitting .189, with an equally discouraging ten run output in July and eleven in April. He balanced his overall effort with 39 RBI in the final two months of the season, nearly half of his 85 for the year.
Some argue that Santana should hit higher in the lineup because of the higher walk rate that boosts his on-base percentage up to more reasonable levels, compensating for the bad batting average provided. He is one of the best in the game at drawing walks and has evened out his strikeout-to-walk rate in the low 1.10 range over the last several seasons. In addition to the high walk rate, he sees a lot of pitches in doing so, which can be helpful to the rest of the lineup behind him.
A move higher in the lineup would, however, likely cut into his effectiveness in driving in runs. When looking back at the move of Jason Kipnis from the third spot in the order in 2013 to the leadoff spot in 2015, the Tribe second baseman needed to change his approach and it reflected in his stats. Comparing the two seasons in almost an equal number of at bats, Kipnis hit .284 with 17 homers, 36 doubles, four triples, 86 runs scored, and 84 RBI while stealing 30 bases in 2013. In 2015, he hit .303 with nine homers, 43 doubles, seven triples, 86 runs scored, and 52 RBI with 12 stolen bases. His power altered, he hit more consistently, and his run production fell off significantly, with presumably fewer opportunities to drive in runs.
On this current Indians roster, there is no room at the top of the lineup for Santana. Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Michael Brantley all have claimed well deserved stakes leading off the batting order.
If Santana is in the wrong spot, offensively and defensively, could it be more of an indication that he is on the wrong team?
Given what has been said above, relocating to a different team would not be the worst career move for Santana. If given the opportunity to play to his strengths (walk, see pitches, get back to using the whole field, etc.), he could be a viable contributor to a team in need of a hitter at the top of the lineup as opposed to in the middle of it. With some of the pressures of cleaning up off of him, he could settle into a more comfortable role in a lineup and not try to pull every pitch. While he may truly be limited to being a first baseman at this stage of his career, being on a team with more fly ball tendencies or in a fly ball park could help cut into the effects of his questioned defensive skills at first base.
Then, when factoring in what remains of his contract, Santana becomes a piece that would be nice to move to free up more financial flexibility. He will turn 30 during the first week of the regular season and is set to make $8.25 million in the final guaranteed year of his contract. He has a team option for $12 million for 2017, but it is difficult to see the Indians committing to that figure without Santana posting career numbers across the board at the plate. Instead, eating the $1.2 million buyout seems far more likely.
A team in need of some offensive production, especially base runners for a strong middle of the lineup on a team not strapped for cash, could benefit from a one year, $9.45 million rental. He may be one of the more overlooked trade pieces on the roster, especially after being the subject of trade rumors over the previous few seasons. Moving him, however, may leave the Indians with more money to play with but a question as to whether or not Chris Johnson or the unproven and unsuccessful (on the MLB level) Jesus Aguilar can play first base every day.
Even with decreased production in many offensive categories and a defensive game that leaves something to be desired, Santana is an everyday starting player in the MLB. In the right lineup, which may not be that of Cleveland, his usefulness could be maximized. Other teams, especially those believing in some of the new age sabermetrics, could see the worth that he has in regards to weighted runs and on-base percentage, and RBI production and take a chance to find a piece that complements what they have, rather than playing the best players on the roster and hoping for the best.
If he remains in Cleveland, the Indians will need a much more consistent Santana for 2016 because, as he goes, so goes the Tribe offense.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer