There have been reports lately that the Cleveland Indians are looking to extend first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana who is set to be a free agent at the end of the 2017 campaign. When Santana made his debut in the majors in 2010, the Indians had high hopes for him. As a switch-hitting catcher with pretty good power, many around the organization were hoping he would be Victor Martinez 2.0. The team had just traded Martinez the year before at the trade deadline because they knew they needed to be rebuild and thought they had Martinez’s replacement ready to go.
While he has produced more power than his predecessor, Santana never quite turned into the feared power hitter that the Indians hoped he would. For years, people in Cleveland were saying that this was going to be the year Santana broke out and became the hitter everyone was expecting him to be, but every year he would struggle to hit right around .250, have about 20-25 home runs, and drive in about 75-85. Those aren’t bad numbers, but they also are not the kind of numbers you want to build the center of your lineup around.
One of the positives to Santana’s potential was the fact that he played catcher, and most catchers aren’t counted upon to bring huge production at the plate. The thought was that if they could get those kind of offensive numbers from their catcher, that would be an added advantage to the rest of their lineup. However, it became apparent after a few years that he was not going to be a great defensive catcher. They started to move him around and tried him at first base and third base until finally settling on making him their primary first baseman in 2015. His numbers were still similar, but they don’t look as good coming from a first baseman as they do a catcher.
At that point, if you would have asked me if the Indians should try to keep Santana after his contract ran out, I probably would have said to just let him walk. I was not all that impressed with him and thought he would be someone who could be easily replaced. Terry Francona has changed my mind, and this is part of what makes him such a great manager. He found a way to put Santana into a position where could maximize his impact and value on the team.
Francona saw that Santana didn’t thrive when he was hitting in the middle of the lineup because there was too much pressure on him to live up to the expectations that had been thrust upon him as a middle-of-the-order guy. He started batting Santana in the lead-off position at times, which caused me and I’m sure many other people to scratch our heads. Santana is not the stereotypical leadoff hitter. Most leadoff batters are quick, centerfielders or middle infielders who have high batting averages.
Santana is not known for his speed or having a high batting average, but he does draw a lot of walks. Hitting Santana in the leadoff spot takes some pressure off of him to be a huge slugger, and it allows his teammates to get a look at several pitches before their at-bats. He has had a lot of success in this role, and he really hasn’t clogged up the base paths for the fast guys behind him in the lineup. Having Santana bat first also gives the team the advantage of having a guy at the top of the lineup who is pretty good at driving in runs, so if the bottom part of the lineup starts a rally, he can keep it going.
Francona has also put Santana in a position to succeed on defense by playing him a lot at designated hitter. Last year he split time with Mike Napoli at first, and this year he will fill in at first for Edwin Encarnacion when he needs some rest. Francona tried him in left field in last year’s World Series, and he was adequate. He looks like he will continue to see some time in the outfield against National League clubs because he’s already played some right field against the Arizona Diamondbacks early this season. Playing him at DH more the last two years has allowed Santana to focus on his hitting and has kept him fresher for when he needs to play in the field.
Francona’s changes have paid huge dividends for Santana because he had career highs of 34 home runs and 87 RBI last year according to espn.com. He has also started this season hot with 7 hits, 6 RBI, a home run, and a .333 average through the first 5 games. Santana was a key piece and offensive catalyst during the Indians magical 2016 season, and he’s looking to keep improving this year. I hope the team can find a way to lock him up during the season because I don’t want to see him hit the free agent market anymore. It’s amazing what a shift in positions and expectations can do to revive a player’s career and change people’s outlooks on the situation.