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Countdown to Opening Day – 41
A career year could not have come at a better time for Carlos Santana, as his watchful eye at the plate and potent power in his bat helped to provide plenty of offense for the Cleveland Indians on their run to the seventh game of the World Series. It also made what already appeared to be an easy decision a no-brainer as the club picked up his $12 million option after the season to guarantee at least one more year of Santana at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Santana’s worth was readily apparent as he wore multiple hats for the Tribe, serving as the team’s leadoff man against right-handed pitching and a middle of the order threat against left-handers as manager Terry Francona capitalized on the multiple tools that Santana brought to the plate every day.
It was thought that Santana would see the bulk of his time in the lineup slotted in as the team’s designated hitter due to some defensive deficiencies that were obvious to watchful eyes observing his footwork and technique at first base. With a perceived better defender in Mike Napoli added to the roster on a one-year deal last offseason, Santana seemed destined to a less-than-desired role as a hitter and bench observer every nine innings.
Instead, Santana showed improvement in his sixth season at first base and third straight with a heavy workload after spending previous chunks of his career at catcher and third base. While he logged just over 300 fewer innings at the position compared to Napoli, his overall numbers were better than his more experienced teammate using the most frequently used metrics to measure defensive play.
Using some of the old tried and true, but now considered inefficient, measures, Santana committed just five errors in 556 2/3 innings (roughly once every 111 1/3 innings), while Napoli made 13 in 859 1/3 (about once every 66 1/3). Santana also finished the season with the better fielding percentage at first between the two, with a .991 mark to Napoli’s .986.
Looking at some of the new wave of accepted statistics, Santana ended the season with one defensive run saved, while Napoli was at -4. Santana had a 2.2 UZR for the season, putting him somewhere between an average and above average first baseman, while Napoli was at -4.4. Of American League first basemen to man the position for 300 innings or more, Santana’s UZR/150 of 4.6 was the fourth-best among qualified players and Napoli was 16th at -6.1.
Santana could be seeing the same positional dilemma for 2017 with the team’s addition of Edwin Encarnacion from Toronto. Last season with the Blue Jays, Encarnacion was in the field at first base for a total of 636 1/3 innings in the regular season, boasting a .997 fielding percentage and a pair of fielding errors, no defensive runs saved, a UZR of 1.7, and a UZR/150 of 3.5.
While it is likely the two engage in a timeshare at first base, it may be more likely that the Indians protect their older, long-term financial investment Encarnacion with a bit more time at designated hitter, letting the slightly better defender Santana take a few more innings at the bag.
When talking about Santana and what he typically provides the team, the focus tends to be much more about the offensive side of the game, and last season’s efforts were certainly worthy of some attention.
Santana has been a consistent part of the Indians lineup, not necessarily in his production, but in seeing his name inked on the lineup card. He played in a career-high 158 games in 2016, making it six straight seasons with at least 143 games played and the fifth time in those six years that he has played in 152 games or more. While his offensive contributions have varied wildly over those half-dozen seasons, he has given Indians managers a regular and reliable name to count on.
His season was filled with personal bests. He established new highs for plate appearances, at bats, runs scored, hits, triples, homers, RBI, slugging percentage, and total bases. And he did so while bouncing around the lineup. He once again finished in the top three in the league in walks, doing so for the sixth straight year.
Much to his benefit, Santana was protected in the lineup no matter where he was hitting. At the top of the order in the leadoff spot, he brought his plus eye to the plate while setting the table for Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Napoli behind him. He saw well over half of his plate appearances from the leadoff spot and did solid work in the role, hitting .260 with a .385 on-base percentage, .502 slugging percentage, 18 doubles, two triples, 19 homers, and 41 RBI while drawing 67 walks against 60 strikeouts. He came around to score 57 times, or 30 more times than he did when hitting in the middle of the lineup.
He saw the bulk of the rest of his action from that fifth spot in the order, trailing Napoli in the lineup and ahead of the surprising breakout numbers of Jose Ramirez. The different batting order placement had little effect on his batting average (.259), but he did see a decline in his OBP (.339) and slugging (.481) further down the lineup. While he did show less patience in the five spot (drawing walks every 9.54 plate appearances compared to every 5.90 trips at the top of the order), his home run production remained nearly the same (every 20.8 plate appearances hitting fifth and 20.7 hitting first). His overall extra base hit results were just slightly skewed to the top of the order as he averaged an extra base hit every 10.78 plate appearances while hitting fifth and 10.13 from the leadoff spot.
At the age of 30 and in some of the prime years of his career, Santana showed the middle of the order power that some had been waiting to see from him at a consistent clip for years, which becomes all the more ironic that he spent so much of his time hitting at the top of the order. But hitting leadoff and not benefitting from the high average hitters like Kipnis and Lindor being on base did not hurt his ability to drive in runs, as he finished second on the team with his 87 RBI, the top mark of his career and his third straight year with 85 or more.
He finished the regular season with a .259/.366/.498 slash line with 31 doubles, three triples, and 34 homers as part of his career-best 151 hits on the year. He scuffled some in the postseason, providing a .192/.311/.385 slash with a double, three homers, and four RBI, although his best numbers in the playoffs came on the biggest stage against the Chicago Cubs.
Santana has begun the preparation for his seventh season in an Indians uniform, but will take a hiatus from spring action to represent his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic before returning to Goodyear, Arizona. He will be joined in the tournament by nearly a dozen of his organizational teammates.
This season will mark his entrance into a uniquely compelling time in his career. In the final year of his contract with the Indians, his potential price tag at free agency following the season could be far too much for Cleveland to absorb, especially with contracts for many players on the roster steadily on the rise. However, the Indians front office has defied that conventional Cleveland wisdom by spending intelligently and adding proven pieces to the team over the last seven months, whether it be in the midseason trade last year for All-Star reliever and ALCS MVP Andrew Miller, or the offseason signings of Encarnacion and reliever Boone Logan.
In years past, there would have been questions about whether or not Santana would finish the year with the club or if he would be dealt for prospects to a contender. Now, the Indians are those contenders and will benefit from holding on to Santana for what could be his final year in town. With little first base or designated hitter type depth ready at the top levels of the Tribe’s farm system, it will be interesting to see if the team attempts to lock him up for a few more years or if it will be content with moving forward with Encarnacion as the squad’s first baseman for the future while filling the extra roster spot vacated by Santana with a cheaper, more flexible option because of the amount of money already tied up in the budget throughout the rest of this decade.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images