Alonso Proving 2017 Was No Fluke, Powering Tribe’s Second Half Offense

This past winter, the Cleveland Indians decided to move on from free agent and long-time player Carlos Santana. He was set to break the bank on a mega contract that Cleveland’s management did not think was worth shelling out to a first baseman who could put up decent power numbers, but has been very inconsistent over the course of his career.

Santana, 32 years old, inked a lucrative deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that guaranteed him three years and at least $60 million. It ended Santana’s eight-year (seven full seasons) run with the Tribe. His journey with Cleveland was a roller coaster ride, watching him go from catcher, to third base, to finally settling in as a first baseman.

It was also a roller coaster in the sense that he could not put back-to-back great seasons together. He followed a 27-homer 2011 campaign with seasons of 18 and 20 bombs. He mashed 27 again in 2014, but fell back to 19 again in 2015, and then hammered a career-high 34 jacks in Cleveland’s 2016 World Series season. He finished his Tribe tenure dropping back down to 23 taters last season, putting him all over the map. His .249 batting average did not scream franchise player either, so why pay Santana like a franchise player – especially in a smaller market like Cleveland.

After deciding to let Santana walk, some Indians fans wondered how the Tribe would replace his home run hitting potential in the lineup and address the first base position. Cleveland turned its attention to Yonder Alonso. The veteran journeyman was a year younger than the player he was replacing. However, he was coming off what was by far a career year in 2017.

Last season with the Athletics and Mariners, Alonso collected 28-round trippers and 67 RBI. In parts of seven previous seasons, he had never had a double-digit homer total and his previous career-best RBI total had been 62. He did not have the power history of Santana and some wondered if he would continue to hit for power in Cleveland.

Making things worse was how Alonso tailed off in 2017. Before last season’s All-Star break, Alonso hit 20 bombs and drove in 43 runs in 258 at-bats while earning his only career All-Star nod. After the break, however, he dropped to eight homers and 24 RBI in 193 at bats. His batting average went from .275 pre-break and .254 after. Had he peaked in last year’s first half, only to come back down to Earth?

That question has been met with a resounding no. Alonso has been every bit as advertised and has been a very strong presence in the middle of manager Terry Francona‘s lineup.

Alonso entered Saturday’s game with 20 home runs, 66 RBI, and .250 batting average. The runs driven in were just one off the career-high he set all of last year. According to ESPN stats, he is on pace to completely obliterate his old mark as he is on a trajectory for 93 RBI. He is on pace for another 28-homer campaign. He has been a nice power bat in the middle of the lineup, making it hard to opposing teams to pitch around the top three in the Tribe’s batting order. All-Stars Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez cannot be simply side-stepped with the power bats of Edwin Encarnacion and now Alonso for them. Alonso helps to make the batting order very dynamic.

More importantly, Alonso is not falling into a second-half abyss as he did a season ago. He has been on fire since the All-Star break, hammering seven of his long balls since the Mid-Summer Classic. His power numbers are not lagging as the season wears on, an important sign for a player who seems to be making his mark as a late-career bloomer.

The production Alonso has given and is on pace to give to the Tribe makes his contract seem like a steal. He is making just $7 million this year and set to earn $8 million next season. The Indians have a $9 million team option on Alonso for 2020, which right now seems like a no-brainer to pick up. Alonso’s contract was a gamble on a player who had only had one really good season, but now looks exceedingly team-friendly for an All-Star who has two powerful years to his name. No longer can 2017 be called a fluke.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Santana has not been quite what the Phillies bargained for. He has fewer homers and RBI, at 17 and 64, than his replacement in Cleveland. Santana is also slogging along with a .217 batting average. He still walks a lot (as he did in Cleveland) with 88 free passes so far, but is simply not putting up the great numbers that a $60 million contract would imply that he should.

When Cleveland moved on from its veteran and long-time player in the past offseason, some fans thought it a mistake. Instead, it seems it was a very wise move. Alonso is a year younger, a lot cheaper, and producing more at the plate than the former Indians first baseman.

Indeed, Alonso has been a steal for the Indians as they are not missing a beat in the batting order, as some feared they would.

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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