Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 41: Carlos Santana

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 41 days

The role of the cleanup hitter has been primarily centered around one single individual for the majority of the last four seasons. That player, of course, is the switch-hitting converted infielder Carlos Santana.

After being acquired by the Dodgers for third basemen Casey Blake in 2008, Santana powered through the minor leagues and made his debut in the majors in 2010. Since then, he’s been a mainstay in the lineup as one of the Tribe’s best power hitters. That being said, Santana has never lived up to the power expectations that many thought he would have developed at this point in his career.

Santana, 29, brings a ton of tools to the plate which makes him incredibly useful for the Tribe. He has some of the best plate discipline in the majors, and tailors that with decent power from both sides of the plate. That being said, Santana has flaws as well, which can sometimes make him a detriment to the offense.

Between 2014 and 2015, Santana’s ground ball % went up from 40.1% to 44.5%, and his line drive % dropped from 19.5% to 18.3%. At the same time, his soft speed % rose from 20.0% to 21.9%, and his hard hit contact % dropped from 35% to 29.6%. Granted, his hard hit % in 2014 was the second highest of his career, but his hard % in 2015 was the lowest of his career.

What may be scariest about Santana’s decline in offensive production is that his ISO has dropped from .196 in 2014 to .164 in 2015. If Santana is going to continue to be placed in the cleanup spot, a primarily high power-hitting location, then he’ll need to focus on putting the ball in play more and driving the ball as well.

While Santana may be in decline in the power department, he was still worth 2.4 wins in 2015 and produced a 110 wRC+. Santana is a sabermetric lord and savior, but to more casual fans he’s a nightmare. He doesn’t hit for average, his home run total is not fantastic, and doesn’t provide much on the defensive end. What he does extremely well though is get on base, mash left-handed pitching, and drive in runs.

Last season, Santana produced significantly better when there were men in scoring position compared to when the bases were empty or even with just one guy on base. In 176 at bats with men in scoring position, Santana batted a solid .268 with eight home runs, eight doubles, and two triples. He did have most of his home runs with no one on base, as he hit eleven in this spot of the lineup, but his average dipped to a lowly .228. This relates to part of the argument questioning why he consistently bats cleanup, but there’s an argument to move him to somewhere else in the lineup to be even more productive.

As he’s spent most of his time in the cleanup role, Santana could be useful in other areas of the lineup. Yes, he’s got a ton of power, but he has the ability to flash his power and other tools more effectively at other points of the lineup. One of the most interesting ideas is throwing Santana in the leadoff spot and moving Jason Kipnis to either third or potentially cleanup. With his superior on-base abilities and high ground ball rate (which can result in double plays), Santana is a perfect candidate to lead off for this team.

The most likely candidate to bat behind the leadoff man this year will be phenom Francisco Lindor. With Santana leading off, the chances of him drawing a walk, over Kipnis getting on base, seems to be more likely. While Kipnis performed at an elite level in the leadoff spot, his tools are more useful in a lower role in the lineup over Santana.

Another option for Santana would be to move him lower in the lineup to the seven spot, theoretically. With Santana’s power in a decline but his on-base abilities staying consistent, having him at a lower point in the lineup could create the ability to lengthen the lineup. Having Santana to protect Yan Gomes, Mike Napoli or Kipnis could be beneficial to the offense. Also, it would help create a faster roster turn over by allowing him to draw his walks and allow the number eight batter to either get a chance to drive him in, or end the inning and allow the number nine batter to lead off.

With the addition of Napoli, Santana’s role on the team is kind of muddled going forward. While he was the primary first basemen in 2015, he’s not likely to see as many at bats there in 2016. As of now, he’s slated to play the majority of his time at designated hitter, which has not boded well for him in the past. In 2015, he played 21 games at DH and he batted .205 with one home run, one double, and 19 strikeouts to 16 walks. He’s still able to draw his walks fine, but it seems that he isn’t able to concentrate on the at bat as well when he’s not actively playing a position.

The Indians have been very focused this offseason in making sure that they have a solid defense to back up their potent pitching staff. When Giovanny Urshela and Lindor were brought up last season, there was an obvious increase in the dominance of pitchers like Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin, who tend to be very ground ball dominant pitchers. The weakest part of the infield defense resided in Santana at first base. This is the reason why Napoli was brought in this winter. Napoli, 34, posted a 3 DRS in 2015, and a 7 DRS in 2014 at first base, while Santana posted a -4 DRS in both ’14 and ’15. He also posted a ghastly -5 DRS at third base in 2014, an experiment hopefully never conducted again.

If the Tribe wants to follow through with prioritizing run prevention over run production, then Santana will be spending a lot of time at designated hitter this year, and if his offensive struggles continue at that position, then there’s a good chance that Santana could be moved around the lineup. Santana is a crucial piece to this lineup and he is a fantastic player. For the tools that he provides, he provides them well, but his flaws are also very apparent. In order for him to be successful, the Indians are going to have to tinker where he fits best in this new lineup.

Whether he likes it or not, this season will be very trying for Santana. He’ll either need to adapt to the changes ahead of him, or look forward to spending more time on the bench. It’s all up to him on whether or not he wants to follow through with where the team is going.

Photo: Leon Halip/Getty Images

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