Saving Santana?

If you're a Cleveland Indians' fan, once you said Carlos Santana out loud, you likely forked off onto one of two paths: either smiling gleefully, looking forward to his scintillating bat control and alluring intangibles; or you threw-up a little bit in your mouth at the thought of  a true "power hitter" who can't hit 30 homers and drive in 100 RBI. There's no 'down-the-middle' for Tribe fans at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario; you either love the guy, or simply want him gone.

Is there a player any more caustic in Cleveland than the enigmatic Even his multiple positions are viscerally more like the fumy and rank, heavy-weighted Los Angeles smog, coughed out of the exhaust of failed experiments to maximize his offensive prowess, then the light-spring early-morning mists of the defensive wizardry of fellow infielders Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela. While most players that acquire multiple positions do so because they have a defensive acumen, Santana has stacked up positions in a hunt for his defensive Red October. Unfortunately, the stealth capabilities of Santana's defensive trials has ultimately forced him into the one role he's never wanted, that as the team's primary DH role.

A year ago, I wrote about the Indians perplexing then-first baseman, pondering a run at the 2015 MVP award. I truly thought that he was going to "break-out" for the haters, and become a plush stuffed-animal for those that already loved him that all could curl up with every time he stepped up to the plate.

Boy was I was wrong, but it turns out that there are multiple reasons why my thinking was flawed. You see, Carlos Santana isn't a typical player. GMs love what he brings to the table, but the numbers and abilities don't fit a consistent baseball product, and managers, coaches, the media, and Carlos Santana himself, haven't quite figured that out yet.

In my wonderful mixed bag of "feel" and "metrics," it looked and felt like Santana was about to blast into his prime years like the Dominican God of Thunder. I've always felt like "mood" and "temperament" could lift his game to another level, and at the center of this, was his move to first base. In the back of my mind, I saw Thome-like surge of power, to go along with his normal 16% walk rate and a .370 (or higher) OBP.

But that's likely the problem for general baseball fans with Santana to begin with. He's just not Jim Thome, and if utilized properly, that's pretty damn okay. While Santana "struggled" offensively last season, the greater realization that who Santana truly is as a baseball player is a unique baseball flavor. His talents are in the subtle skills of the game: drawing a walk, finding the gaps, and all is rooted in a true joy of the game.

But here's the problem. He's not David Ortiz, or even Travis Hafner. He's a pretty athletic guy, who has these quintessential moments in the field in which you stop for a second and think, "he can defend." Then reality sets in, and the consistencies of defending get to him. I'm not sure if it's a repetition thing, because coaches rave about his work. I'm not sure if there's some "Manny-being-Manny" involved, in which he has gaps in his focus. What I am sure of is that he is athletic enough to not be thought of the lumbering, iron-gloved Hafner, who would have a hard time fielding air.

The fact that he's been a catcher, and a third baseman, and a first baseman on this team, speaks more to the lack of ability defensively there, over the years, and less about Santana's abilities, or lack thereof. In 2010, Lou Marson and Chris Gimenez and Mike Redmond toiled behind the plate for the Tribe, when Santana made his big league debut. Gomes was better. The Indians have had a void at third base for years, and only moved Santana out of there because he just wasn't good. Once Swisher went down, first was the next obvious place for him to move. Now, with the signing of Mike Napoli, the only slot available in a full-time fashion is the DH, which is no doubt his best fit...right?

Of course, there's a small part of me that's thinking Santana is somewhere taking reps in right and left field right now, but there's no proof for that, so I digress.

So defensively, he doesn't resemble the out-of-shape lumberers, or the injury-prone robots, or the way-too-old professional bats, so DH doesn't quite fit.

Offensively, perceptually, he's not really a typical DH. He doesn't bring to mind the prodigious power of Ortiz, and while I've already mentioned Jim Thome, Santana just isn't going to lace 500-foot shots off of scoreboards or into the mezzanine section with regularity. Instead, Santana is going to hit with power, just not the likely in the quantitative or colossal sense. He'll find gaps and place singles. He'll walk a lot, and K a bit too. Overall, he'll just be really good, and really productive...if people would just see him for what he is.

Seriously, I hate .240 averages too, but getting on base counts for something, and his .365 lifetime OBP is pretty damn outstanding, unless you see him as something different. Unless you think he's going to hit .300, or even .280 (his best average has been .268), and hit 30+ homers yearly (his best is 28), and drive out 100 or more RBI (85 is his best, twice, including last year), and if you truly think he's a middle-of the-order bat (which he's been, for the majority of his career). Now, I do think those that hammer him for not being a middle-of-the-order guy are slightly off base, but I'll get to that in a second. He's actually pretty okay there, but I would agree with many that there are better places for him. I just don't think the powers-that-be in Francona and yes, Santana too, are ready to make Carlos a top-of-the-order guy just yet.

For Santana to truly be appreciated, people have to have the right perception. In a world in which change is akin to walking across a giant field of legos barefoot, it's pretty damn impossible to see Santana as anything but a middle-of-the-order, power hitter, who plays a corner infield position. As I've mentioned before, the Indians coaching staff, as well as Santana believe this as well.

You can say what you want about Santana, but you have to be impressed with his desire to play in the field, and hit in the meat of the order. While Terry Francona correctly takes the heat for his positioning of Santana throughout the year, a lot of that is the flat-out hankering of the mercurial Santana to be "in-the-mix. Santana sure as hell doesn't want to be a DH, and equally, doesn't want to hit at the top of the order. Francona too often succumbs to Santana's determination to stay typical, and in doing so, both manager and player set up the masses to see him as a square peg trying to fit a round hole both offensively and defensively.

He was a catcher and not a very good one, but enjoyed playing the position, and worked mercilessly at getting better. You could see it on occasion, blocking a wild pitch or gunning down a runner. The problem was his lack of consistency at a position that is just tough to figure out once your a professional.

Once Yan Gomes bumped him out of that slot, and knowing that Nick Swisher was the likely first baseman, Santana decided that he was going to figure out how to play third base, on the fly, at the Major League level. He spent the winter toiling at third in the Winter Leagues, and didn't look all that bad. He came into spring training beaming at the proposition of playing the hot corner, performed well enough against Major League (but spring training) competition to win the job (well, he was competing with Lonnie Chisenhall), then performed a lot like a guy who was trying to learn third...on the the big leagues. Lonnie was the full time third baseman by May, and over to first went Santana, replacing an oft-injured and struggling Swisher.

What's funny is that Santana seemed to utilize his newly learned third-base skills, to play a pretty solid first base, and after struggling out of the gate offensively, poured it on over the final months of the season. As I noted last year, it looked like Santana had finally found a position in which he could be fine defensively, and focus on his offense. Unfortunately, I let the team of Francona/Santana convince me that the square peg FINALLY FOUND THE ROUND HOLE IN WHICH IT COULD FIT!

Yeah, if Lucy was holding the football for me to kick, I'd be flying through the air like Charlie Brown...every...damn...time.

Santana struggled defensively for parts of the season last year, and his power production was a bit down as well. His offensive numbers actually rounded out to near norms in most areas, but he just seemed to be a player without a position, or more appropriately, a player who didn't want to except the fact that he shouldn't have a glove, and he shouldn't be hitting anywhere in the middle-of-the-order.

Of course, this is where I have to pause, and step back for all of us. While it's true that he may fit better outside the middle, I often wonder if the expectations for Santana are so skewed, that we truly don't have a clear picture regarding his offensive production.

As I noted in that pre-New Year's piece last year, Santana's traditional numbers are more equivalent to another certain beloved Indians' catcher, who has spent the past few seasons beating the hell out of his former team. Of course, I'm speaking of El Capitan, Victor Martinez.

Here are their up-to-date stats over their tenure with the Indians. One important note before going forward though: VMart's 162 Game average is a bit inflated, as it includes his time with the Red Sox and Tigers.

Carlos Santana:
162 Game Avg. 162 691 572 79 140 34 1 24 85 6 3 109 125 .245 .365 .433 .798 122 6
CLE (6 yrs) 804 3427 2841 394 696 168 7 117 421 30 14 539 619 .245 .365 .433 .798 122 32

Victor Martinez:
162 Game Avg. 162 678 604 80 182 37 0 21 102 1 1 63 71 .302 .367 .467 .834 123 11
CLE (8 yrs) 821 3449 3035 413 900 191 2 103 518 1 3 347 407 .297 .369 .463 .832 120 47

Carlos's bWAR and fWAR over his six-season stretch is 18.1 to 16.8, while VMart's is 19.2 to 17. The obvious difference between the two catchers are hits (VMart has 204 more) and walks (Carlos has 192 more), which more-or-less cancel each other out. If we're to be fair, singles do generally produce more runs than does a walk, so we can give a slight lean to Victor there, but aside from that hazy shade of grey, Carlos has 292 extra-base hits, while VMart has only four more (296). While Victor does have 23 more doubles, Carlos has 14 more homers, and five more triples and a surprising 30 stolen bases. What we essentially end up with though is a teeter-totter battle of similarity.

My general point with regards to Santana is that while many people love VMart for a variety of reasons, Carlos is consistently a pariah. Perhaps part of that is because he was VMart's replacement. Part of that is because most people that were paying attention super-inflated the deal that brought him here, and for good reason (c'mon, an aging Casey Blake for a top ten prospect in baseball?). In the end, he really isn't all that dissimilar to his predecessor regarding his on-the-field play, both offensively and defensively. Obviously, there's some intangibles that VMart had in the locker room that Santana doesn't, but that's another one of those topics that is reminiscent of a post-WWI mine field. You can't measure intangibles (which by definition, are vague and obscure), so why bother with it in the general discussion.

Production-wise, there are more similarities than not, and while VMart's clutch hitting with Runners In Scoring Position (RISP) was pretty exquisite, my guess is that Santana's .833 OPS with RISP is in the general ballpark of VMart's. Yeah, I'd prefer VMart's bat in clutch situations with a cursory look, but in general, there isn't enough difference in production to really make either player a bad choice for any offensive situation. You may get slightly different results, but both results would be, in general, positive.

In the end, you're talking about two .800 OPS players overall, who are thought of quite differently in the overall Cleveland schema. I get why. I'm just not sure it's entirely fair.

That said, it's clear that the Indians plan on keeping their DH going forward because GM Chris Antonetti understands his underlying value, especially in comparison to players around the league. It's equally clear that Santana doesn't want to make the moves that will optimize his ability, and likewise, Francona doesn't seem to want to overrule his player and put the team in the best position to win.

If you don't believe me, take a look at the dialogue that went on between both Santana and Francona, via the media. In August, Francona was asked about Santana playing first base, as the manager had moved him to the DH role for a long dog-day-of-summer stretch.
"I don't think he has the ability to just go out and play it (first). He's got to work at it. When he works at it, he's pretty good. You want your guys to be happy, but you want to put the best team on the field. I've tried to talk to him about that. Mike Sarbaugh has...I think sometimes the conversations have been more productive than others. Sometimes I'm not sure he understands or agrees..."
In fairness to Tito, Santana didn't look good in the field, and was clearly lacking power. I remember wondering if there wasn't a connection at the time, and recall fellow EHC writers, Adam Burke, Mike Hattery and I discussing this very thing in September. I was also curious about the comments about the lack of work, because Santana has always been the guy that wants to earn his time in the field.

Was there something different? It turns out there was, and maybe it was multiple things, when you stop and think about it.

Santana's baby was born in late May, and he had taken a paternity leave to watch his son being born. Up to that point, Santana was pretty active on twitter. After the birth, his twitter time essentially stopped, other than the occasional "Go Cleveland" tweets, surrounded by pictures of his baby. I initially wondered if being a Dad may have gotten in the way of baseball a bit? I know, sounds silly, but different players handle things differently. His June slash, right after the birth, was .189/.294/.347, easily the worst of the season, and I have to believe, one of the worst months as a baseball player in his entire career. Mind you, this isn't a knock on my part. I'm a Dad, and I get it.

If you don't buy that, for even a month, Santana followed Francona's comment after the season ended.
"Everybody in here knows that I was a little hurt." My back...All year this bothered me, but I told (Terry Francona) I wanted to play no matter what my numbers were. That's what happened."
In the world of the Cleveland Indians, that's just how things work, especially where Santana is concerned.


So how do the Indians Save Santana?

When considering this, I come back to a simple thought that the writers at Everybody Hates Cleveland have pondered over the past few months: Chris Antonetti has to set up the roster so that Francona has to utilize it in a certain way.

Now think about the Indians' recent free agent signings, and in particular, 1B Mike Napoli. It's likely that the 34-year old Napoli will see the bulk of time at first base, and it's equally likely that he'll be batting fourth, where he's spent his entire career. If you flesh out the rest of the line-up, once Michael Brantley returns, it will likely look something like this.

1. Jason Kipnis
2. Francisco Lindor
3. Michael Brantley
4. Mike Napoli
5. Carlos Santana
6. Yan Gomes
7. Lonnie Chisenhall
8. Giovanni Urshella
9. Rajai Davis/Abraham Almonte

This is why I'm not 100% content on the roster construct, just yet. To me, to get Santana where I would want him, one more move would be needed, especially with the Michael Brantley unknown. Imagine if the Indians traded for the Marlins' Marcell Ozuna, which likely wouldn't include any of the listed players above. This is where things could get a little interesting. The bulk of Ozuna's at-bats have come in the four-or-five slot in the Marlins' line-up. Without Brantley, we'd likely get something like this:

1. Jason Kipnis
2. Francisco Lindor
3. Carlos Santana
4. Mike Napoli
5. Marcell Ozuna
6. Yan Gomes
7. Lonnie Chisenhall
8. Gio Urshella
9. Rajai Davis/Abraham Almonte

Where my real curiosity lies would be what happens when Brantley returns. Could we see a scenario where a valid on-base guy moves up in the order?
"The way we're constituted, we put the best lineup out there we can," Francona said. "So there are a lot of days where he hits fourth. In a perfect world, maybe he's not hitting fourth. Maybe because of how much he gets on base, maybe you got him in a position where he's not having to drive in all the runs but scoring more of the runs because he's on base so much. But again, you have your team and you do the best you can."
1. Carlos Santana
2. Jason Kipnis
3. Michael Brantley
4. Mike Napoli
5. Marcell Ozuna
6. Yan Gomes
7. Lonnie Chisenhall
8. Gio Urshela
9. Francisco Lindor

Obviously, my stretch there is Lindor moving to ninth, which I just don't see happening. Ultimately, you'd likely see Santana plugged into the four or five slot, especially if Lindor continues his offensive onslaught. But imagine a world in which the Indians three best on-base guys hit right in a row, serving up a slice of RBI magic to the likes of Mike Napoli, Marcell Ozuna and Yan Gomes. Hell, imagine Lindor forcing his way to the top of the line-up, sliding everyone down.

1. Carlos Santana
2. Francisco Lindor
3. Jason Kipnis
4. Michael Brantley
5. Mike Napoli
6. Marcell Ozuna
7. Yan Gomes
8. Lonnie Chisenhall
9. Jose Ramirez/Gio Urshella (sorry...just would love to see JRam here)

I also want to notate here that Gomes is a wildcard in all of this. I think he's going to improve on his 2014 numbers in 2015, especially if he's healthy. If this is the case, look for him to move up. Of course, I realize, the Ozuna deal hasn't happened yet, and likely won't. It's just my believe that the Indians are that kind of bat away from forcing the Indians to make Francona push Santana to the top of the line-up. Also keep in mind that Jose Ramirez takes the place of Mike Aviles, which could likely shake things up as well, as I notated.

I am simply noting here that your Cleveland Indians can save Santana's perception, and in a year in which he wants to make the Indians think long-and-hard about picking up his 2017 club option, it's optimum that he plays at his best.

The question is, will Terry Francona give him that chance, or will he keep trying to force that square peg into that round hole?

Hold on, I'll be right back...Lucy's holding the ball for me to kick it. Holy Cow! She's really going to let me kick it this time...
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