Indians see Santana staying behind the plate
No plans to move switch-hitter out of primary position of catcher
With the bulk of the winter maneuvering complete and Spring Training rapidly approaching, indians.com is taking a look at the state of the Tribe's roster. Today we'll continue this five-part Around the Horn series by examining the catchers and designated hitter options.
CLEVELAND -- An offensive-minded catcher is a luxury in baseball. When a ballclub has a player of this rare breed in the fold, it typically will do everything in its power to keep him behind the plate for as long as possible.
This is how the Indians are treating the situation involving Carlos Santana. Critics might look at Santana and see a future first baseman or designated hitter. Cleveland views him as a switch-hitting weapon in the batter's box and a player capable of growing as a catcher.
That is why Santana is staying put for Cleveland.
"The idea of a catcher who can produce offensively, I think gives us that much more of an advantage," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "The idea is for him -- while hopefully producing a lot offensively -- to understand how much he has to take care of the staff, and we'd like him to catch as much as possible."
The advantage comes in the form of available at-bats for other positions. Santana can handle first base or DH on a part-time basis to rest his legs, but his ability to stay behind the plate allowed the Tribe to sign slugger Mark Reynolds for the full-time duties at first. For DH, Cleveland will likely use a rotation of players in the coming season.
The Indians are still exploring the market for offensive help for the DH role -- a reunion with Travis Hafner or Jim Thome is not out of the realm of possibility -- but multiple players are expected to share that spot in the lineup. Santana will be among those getting at-bats as a DH, because the Indians want him in the order as often as possible.
"We think his best days are in front of him," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "He's only 26. He's still learning the position defensively. We expect him to improve behind the plate and, offensively, we still think there's more upside there as well."
It was a tale of two seasons for Santana a year ago.
The catcher labored out of the gates, hitting just .218 with a .338 on-base percentage, five home runs and 29 RBIs through July 3 (278 plate appearances and 65 games played). Santana was slowed by a concussion in late May and he struggled to perform at his expected level upon returning to the field.
Over the final few months, however, something clicked. Over his final 78 games, Santana hit .281 with a .387 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 47 RBIs in 331 plate appearances. By the time the season ended, the catcher paced the Tribe in home runs (18) and RBIs (76), and ranked fifth in the Majors with 91 walks.
It was a drop-off from his power numbers of 2011, when he hit 27 home runs and knocked in 79, but Santana's solid finish was encouraging for the team.
"When you look at the contributions Carlos made for our team," Antonetti said, "I know there are exceptionally high expectations for him offensively, but he still played over 140 games last year and was among our team leaders in plate appearances, and was very productive when you consider the demands of the positions he plays defensively."
Santana started 95 games behind the plate last season, and also spent time hopping between DH (27 starts) and first base (20). It will likely be a similar situation again in 2013. Reynolds was signed to be the regular first baseman, but he is also likely to see some action at DH and can slide to third base in a pinch, if needed.
Other internal DH options include Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, Chris McGuiness, Mike McDade, Ezequiel Carrera and Matt LaPorta. Given the versatility of players such as Santana, Gomes (catcher, first base, third base and outfield) and Aviles (three infield spots and outfield), the Tribe will also have the ability to rest regulars with part-time DH duty.
"We're still looking to improve our position player alternatives," Antonetti said. "Whether that comes in the form of a straight DH, or whether that's through players who play other positions but could give some other guys a rest, is something we'll take some time to continue to work through."
Cleveland acquired Gomes in the same November trade that netted Aviles from the Blue Jays, but Antonetti said Lou Marson is in line for the backup catching job. Gomes -- just 25 years old with limited big league experience -- will come to camp as a third-string catcher with the ability to handle a few other positions.
Marson, who hit .226 with 13 RBIs over 70 games last season, boasts five years of Major League experience and has a career caught-stealing rate of 32 percent. Gomes, who hit .328 with 13 homers and 59 RBIs for Triple-A Las Vegas last year, has an impressive 31-percent caught-stealing rate in the Minors, but has just 43 big league games under his belt.
"Lou comes in having the experience and familiarity with our staff," Antonetti said. "I have every expectation that he, along with Carlos, will assume the bulk of our catching duties. Yan has an opportunity to make the team and be potentially a second, but more likely a third catcher that can also play a variety of other positions -- first base, third base -- and provide some right-handed power.
"The thing we'll have to balance with Yan is his fit on the Major League team: what opportunities will he have for at-bats at the Major League level versus his continued development behind the plate in the Minor Leagues."
As for Santana, Cleveland's hopes for the catcher are high.
"Carlos works extremely hard to get better in all facets," Antonetti said. "I think we saw evidence of him being an improved player last season. I'm hopeful that this year we'll see continued strides in his development both offensively and defensively."