Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 41 days
The number 41 has not gotten a lot of use in Indians history, but last season marked the first time the number had gone unused since 2003. The last three players to wear the number, however, have left significant marks on the franchise (including a pair of switch-hitting catchers turned first basemen) and one of those players will make his triumphant return home to Cleveland back in the digit for the 2019 season.
One of the most notable voids that the Indians had to fill last offseason was that of Carlos Santana, the switch-hitting first baseman and designated hitter who left the team in free agency after spending ten years in the organization and parts of eight seasons with Cleveland at the Major League level. He cashed in on a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies worth $60 million, with a team option for 2021 for $17.5 million.
The Indians replaced him in the lineup with Yonder Alonso, paying $7 million for the left-handed hitting first baseman who hit .250 with a .317 on-base percentage and .421 slugging percentage with 23 homers and 83 RBI in his lone season with the club in 2018.
Few would have predicted that less than a year after leaving the Indians organization, Santana’s name would be part of a three-team deal involving Seattle and Tampa Bay that would bring him right back to his home at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as the Cleveland front office shed significant chunks of salary in the offseason.
Playing outside of the American League for the first time and moving into the open air bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park, Santana’s power stroke was thought to benefit from what is considered a big hitter’s park. It turned out to be quite the opposite, as Santana put up some of the worst offensive numbers of his career, in spots. He played in a career-high 161 games, serving the Phillies primarily as a first baseman but 19 different times playing across the diamond back at third base (doing so for the first time since the Indians experimented with him at the hot corner 26 times in the 2014 season). Santana’s .229 batting average was the worst of his nine-year career. His .352 on-base percentage was just one-thousandth of a point better than his worst mark of .351 in his first full season in the Majors in 2011. His slugging percentage of .414 was better only than his .395 mark during the 2015 season.
While there were some negatives to Santana’s efforts, he had to adapt to a new league, new pitching, and calling a new ball park home for the first time. And despite the disappointing components of his triple slash, he still brought some punch to the table for the Phillies. In addition to being a staple in first time manager Gabe Kapler’s lineup, he still chipped in with some extra base hits. His 28 doubles were just down from his full season career average of 32. His 24 homers were right on pace with his 2011-2017 production and one better than he hit with the Tribe in his last season in town. His eight sacrifice flies matched his career high, set in 2012, and his 86 RBI were good for his second-best single-season mark, one behind his 87 driven in during the 2016 season.
Even more encouraging was Santana’s approach at the plate, which continued to improve despite facing unfamiliar pitching consistently. He struck out just 93 times on the year, his lowest single-season total since playing in 46 games in his debut season in 2010. He drew 110 walks, helping to buffer the dip in batting average with his second-highest free pass total of his career (short of his 113 in 2014).
Some of Santana’s previous tendencies took a turn in the splits a year ago. Over the course of his entire career, Santana has hit for a higher average right-handed (.272 versus .234) while averaging a homer just under every 35 plate appearances. When hitting left-handed, he has averaged a round tripper just over once every 25 plate appearances, while hitting at a notably lower rate.
He saw far less action against left-handed pitching for the Phillies, stepping to the box just 176 times against them. He slashed .255/.352/.464 right-handed, with six doubles, eight homers, 30 RBI, and 22 walks against 16 strikeouts. Despite having significantly less plate time against southpaws, he averaged a homer every 22 trips to the dish against them, far better than his career average. While batting left-handed versus right-handed pitching, he made 503 plate appearances and posted a .219/.352/.396 line with 22 doubles, 16 homers, and 56 RBI, an average of every 31 trips to the box.
Santana also seemed to struggle in the new digs of the senior circuit. His previous home and road triple slash splits were nearly identical – he owns a .249/.366/.441 mark at home in 635 games and a .244/.360/.442 line in 642 games on the road. But last season, he put up a .266/.392/.468 slash in 80 home games and a .195/.314/.365 line in 81 road contests. His power production equated to an even 27 extra base hits in either situation, but the reduced contact and increased strikeout rate on the road led to ten fewer runs driven in and 20 fewer runs scored.
Some of the unusual trends could be due to spending half of the season hitting in the middle of the Philadelphia lineup, a spot that had been problematic at times for him during his Cleveland days. Batting cleanup for the Phillies over 82 games, he slashed .210/.353/.364 with nine homers and 42 RBI. Out of that perceived high pressure spot and in the five-hole, he slashed .265/.350/.559 in 29 games with eight homers and 20 RBI. The only spot in the lineup that he performed worse in than the fourth spot (with more than a handful of plate appearances) was batting second, something he did 30 times to the tune of a .173/.315/.288 line.
Over the course of his career, Santana’s time in the cleanup spot has proven to be a statistically relevant issue. His career .226 average, .357 OBP, .402 slugging, and .759 OPS are all tied for the second-worst marks of his time in the nine spots in the lineup. He has only fared worse hitting second.
With Santana back “home” in Cleveland, it will be interesting to see if some of those unusual anomalies of a year ago revert back to prior trends. What will also remain interesting is how the lineup is constructed with him back in it. Tribe skipper Terry Francona was willing to go against traditional mindsets with Santana, a player with steady power potential, and he was willing to put him at the top of the lineup in the past to serve as a table setter for the big RBI guys in the lineup like Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez. With all of the roster moves this offseason cutting a significant chunk of the offense away, the team could benefit from an on-base machine like Santana at the top of the order to provide the remaining Lindor and Ramirez with steady RBI opportunities. But in a lineup lacking any real power outside of the surprisingly strong left-side duo of Lindor and Ramirez, Santana could sink back into the middle of the order, where he sat for so much of the season a year ago.
Santana was originally acquired in July of 2008 from the Los Angeles Dodgers with pitcher Jon Meloan in exchange for utility man Casey Blake and cash. He became a player who fans loved to hate or hated to love, all while he suited up all around the lineup card and the field for the Tribe, serving the club as a catcher, designated hitter, first baseman, third baseman, and even left and right fielders. He went on to wear the number 41 longer than all but one of the other 14 men who had put it on before him for the Tribe.
The man to hold the 41 before Santana had a similar path to stardom in an Indians uniform.
Victor Martinez signed with the Indians as an international free agent in 1996 out of Cuidad Bolivar in Venezuela. He reached the Majors as a September call-up in 2002, wearing the number 63, and he returned in June the next season in his new number 20. With an opportunity to serve as the club’s regular catcher in 2004 and in the number 41, he was an All-Star for the American League and was named the league’s Silver Slugger winner at catcher after slashing .283/.359/.492 with 38 doubles, 23 homers, and 108 RBI. He would put up similar power numbers over the next couple of years, despite a drop-off in run production.
Martinez was an integral part of the Indians’ playoff run in 2007. He hit 40 doubles, added in 25 homers, and drove in a career-high 114 runs while hitting .301, his third straight season over the .300 mark. He was again an All-Star and finished seventh in the MVP voting.
He was limited to just 73 games in an injury-shortened 2008 season and the following year, the Indians went into a rebuild, trading away their most valuable commodities. Martinez was one such player, dealt to the Boston Red Sox after being named to his third All-Star team. In return, the Indians received three young pitchers – Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price.
He spent a year and a half in Boston before signing with the Detroit Tigers in free agency following the 2010 season. He remained in Motown through the close of the 2018 season, working for a spell as a catcher and first baseman before settling into the role of primary designated hitter for the Indians’ division rival. At the age of 39, the five-time All-Star and 16-year big league veteran has called it a career.
The number 41 was available for Martinez only because the man who had worn it for 13 seasons, Charles Nagy, saw his time in Cleveland come to an end when he became a free agent after the 2002 season.
Nagy was a first round pick in 1988 by the Indians, selected with the 17th pick overall out of the University of Connecticut after participating in the 1988 Baseball World Cup for the USA team. He would get the call to the Majors in 1990, appearing in nine games that season, and became a full-time member of the starting rotation beginning the following season.
By 1992, Nagy was an All-Star and would go on to post a 17-10 record with a 2.96 ERA in 33 starts while throwing ten complete games and three shutouts in a 252-inning season. Injuries cut his 1993 season to just nine games, but he would get the honor of starting the final game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He bounced back with a 10-8 showing in 23 starts before the strike in 1994 and was a key cog in the rotation in 1995 as he went 16-6 with a 4.55 ERA and the Indians returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1954. He made three starts in the postseason, going 1-0 with a 2.86 ERA.
Nagy was an All-Star again in 1996, matching his career-high at the end of the year with 17 wins while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. He would continue a streak of five straight 15+ win seasons through the 1999 campaign, when he made his final trip to the Midsummer Classic while reaching the 17-win plateau for the third time in his career.
Injuries slowed Nagy down almost permanently in the 21st century. He was limited to eleven starts in 2000, 15 appearances (13 starts) in 2001, and 19 games (seven starts) in 2002 before he left town in free agency. He signed with San Diego at the age of 35, hoping to stay in the game, but he made just five relief appearances for the club before being released in June of that season.
After his career ended, he remained around the game of baseball. He returned to Cleveland in 2004 and spent several chunks of time working with the club over the last decade and a half as a special assistant for baseball operations and later as a Triple-A pitching coach. He was also a minor league pitching coach at Triple-A for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2006 and 2007 and the pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2011 to 2013. He later returned to the Angels under manager Mike Scioscia, working as the team’s pitching coach from 2016 to 2018, but he was let go after the long-time manager stepped down last season and was replaced by Brad Ausmus.
Other notable players to wear #41 in Indians history (15 in total): Felix Mackiewicz (the first in 1945); Art Houtteman (1953), Dick Tidrow (1972-74), Pat Dobson (1976-77)
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
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