The Cleveland Indians may very well be building a contingency plan in the event that the club is unable to re-sign Carlos Santana.
While the Indians have already picked up the option on outfielder Michael Brantley, who could potentially factor in the first base mix for 2018, the club is also working to make sure that it has as many internal candidates as possible to pick up time at “the other hot corner”.
According to a Sunday news release by Nelson Medina Arnías on LVBP.com, the online home of the Venezuelan Winter League (Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional), Indians utility man Yandy Diaz will work at least one game a week at first base while playing for Leones del Caracas this fall and winter.
Diaz made his delayed 2017-18 debut in the offseason league on Sunday, hitting a single and a triple in four plate appearances. He will see time primarily at third base, where he will look to fine tune his work at the hot corner. His play at third was a source of concern throughout the 2017 season and oftentimes led to him being replaced late in games for defensive purposes (he completed just 17 of the 37 games he started at third base with the Indians).
He previously played for the Caracas club following the completion of the 2016 season and benefited from his time there, slashing .371/.451/.510 in 40 games with nine doubles, three triples, two homers, and 18 RBI. He lost out on winning the league’s batting title on the last day of the season.
The 26-year-old Cuban joined the Indians organization in September of 2013 and has routinely shown himself capable of handling minor league pitching. He hit .286 in 76 games for the Carolina Mudcats in his first professional season in 2014 and followed it with a .309 mark in 136 games in 2015 between Akron and Columbus. He hit .318 with career highs in doubles, homers, RBI, and stolen bases in 2016 while working with Akron and Columbus again, and was one of the top hitters in the International League last season, hitting .350 with a .454 on-base percentage in 85 games for the Clippers.
He made his debut for the Indians last season, hitting .263 with eight doubles, a triple, and 13 RBI in 49 games for the parent club.
It will be yet another big change for the fourth year pro as he tries to find a way to make it onto the Indians’ big league roster for good. A third baseman through his first two years in the organization, he added in work at second base and all three outfield spots during the 2016 season. Last offseason while in Caracas, the bulk of his playing time came in the outfield, as Diaz appeared in 23 games in left, 20 games in center, and one in right while working just once at third base.
The Indians have made a push for versatility, especially among its bench and utility players, in recent years. Erik Gonzalez has appeared at five different positions in his two seasons in the Majors (second and third base, shortstop, left and right field) and, combined with his time in the minors and foreign play, he has covered every position on the field except pitcher and catcher. Giovanny Urshela expanded on his infield flexibility by appearing at all four infield spots with the Indians in 2017. Top catching prospect Francisco Mejia is spending his time in the Arizona Fall League adding third base to his skill set as a means to getting him a spot on the Major League roster moving forward with two quality defensive catchers already on the Indians’ 25-man squad in front of him.
Even regulars like Jason Kipnis (who added center fielder to his Major League resume this past season) and Jose Ramirez (who split time between second and third base despite being a Gold Glove candidate and the American League’s All-Star starter at third base) have found themselves scattered across the playing field for manager Terry Francona.
Edwin Encarnacion, who was expected to split time with Santana at first base in 2017, was limited to just 23 starts at the position and likely would not be able to eat up the bulk of the innings at first base for the years ahead. Lonnie Chisenhall was third on the club in appearances at first base with seven (a total of 13 innings) in 2017, but the team would likely prefer to utilize his athleticism in the outfield. The next closest minor leaguers at the position are Nellie Rodriguez and Bobby Bradley; Rodriguez struggled to adapt to Triple-A pitching in his first season at that level as the 23-year-old hit just .170 with 181 strikeouts in 120 games while hitting 14 doubles and 17 homers and driving in 49, while Bradley, just 21, just finished his first season at the Double-A level, batting .251 with 25 doubles, 23 homers, and 89 RBI.
While Diaz has worked professionally at spots around the infield and outfield, he has not logged playing time at first base.
The Indians extended a qualifying offer (one year, $17.4 million) to Santana last Monday, giving the team draft pick compensation in the event that he takes his services elsewhere. According to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, Santana has declined the option, as expected. The 31-year-old is in line to receive offers in the three- to four-year range as one of the top free agent first baseman on the market this offseason.
If Santana relocates from his long-time Cleveland home, the Indians will receive a draft pick after Competitive Balance Round B if he signs for less than $50 million guaranteed or a pick following the first round if he inks a deal in excess of $50 million.
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images