Santana's willingness to learn new role helps Tribe
Cleanup hitter adds third base to backup catching duties, gives Francona more options
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Carlos Santana left his hat off to the side, soaking in the Arizona sun as he gloved some ground balls at third base on Wednesday morning. It marked the beginning of a spring experiment that could have a ripple effect on the Indians' roster.
The reins to the starting role behind the plate have been handed to Yan Gomes, and deservingly so after the young catcher emerged as both a defensive and offensive force for Cleveland last summer. Santana got out of Gomes' way and accepted his new role, especially because his name was still in the everyday lineup and the Tribe was in a playoff chase.
"Whatever they say, I'll do it," Santana said. "I like to win. I like to win and I had a good experience last year with the team. We went to the playoffs. That's very important to me."
That is the approach Santana took at the end of last season, when he met with manager Terry Francona and general manager Chris Antonetti. Santana did not want his career veering toward a full-time job as a designated hitter, so the catcher offered to work on adding third base to his repertoire, which also includes a part-time role as a first baseman.
The Indians gave Santana their blessing and he dedicated his offseason to the transition to third. He logged roughly 30 games at the hot corner in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, working closely with former big leaguer Fernando Tatis, an Escogido teammate. This spring, Santana will continue to train as a third baseman, while also serving as a backup at catcher.
That combination of positions is extraordinarily rare.
"The more versatility Carlos has, the better team we are," Francona said. "He's a guy that hits right in the middle of our order. If he moves around, or he can play third, or he can catch, that's a skillset that not one person in the league has. And the fact that he's our cleanup hitter, that makes it an unbelievable skillset."
Francona and Antonetti had a lengthy meeting with Santana on Wednesday morning, taking time to go over the tentative plan for Spring Training. For the first four days of camp -- Cleveland's first official workout for pitchers and catchers is slated for Thursday -- Santana will work as a catcher, helping out with bullpen sessions and running through drills.
Once all of Cleveland's position players are in camp, and full-squad workouts are underway, Santana will then grab his third baseman's glove and join the infielders. Later this spring, depending on how he is handling the transition, the Indians will then add more catching to prepare Santana for what likely will be a multifaceted role.
"We'll allow him to kind of go out there and work as an infielder," Francona said, "and try not to interfere with that too much, just in fairness to his body. As we get into Spring Training, and we start to assess where we are -- those types of things happen on their own timetable -- then we'll mix in enough catching where he's comfortable."
What is clear is that Cleveland wants the switch-hitting Santana in the lineup on a regular basis as the fourth hitter. Last season, Francona hesitated to add cleanup duties on top of full-time catching duties, but Gomes' emergence has reduced the amount of responsibility on Santana's shoulders.
In 154 games last season, Santana posted a .268/.377/.455 slash line to go along with 20 home runs, 39 doubles, 74 RBIs, 75 runs and 93 walks for the Indians. In the second half, Santana's playing time behind the plate was reduced dramatically, pushing him into DH and first-base duties when Gomes was behind the plate.
"It's really awesome that he's willing to help the team any way he can," Gomes said. "He's going to still -- no matter what -- be a huge part of the team. That just shows the kind of character he's got. He really wants to help the team any way he can."
Right now, the other prime candidate for third base is Lonnie Chisenhall, who bounced between Triple-A Columbus and the Majors last season and has struggled against lefties in his three years in the big leagues. One possibility -- rather than hand Santana the regular role at third -- would be to have Santana fill in for Chisenhall at the hot corner against left-handed pitchers.
"This will work itself out," Francona said. "When we leave here, we're going to have the best team we think we can field."
Third base was actually Santana's original position during his early days as a professional ballplayer in the Dodgers' system. After the 2006 season, though, Los Angeles told him that it wanted to convert him to catcher in order to expedite his path to the Majors. Initially, Santana told the Dodgers that he would not do it and went home unsure of his future.
One day later, after giving the idea some more thought, Santana changed his mind, agreed to the position change and altered the course of his career. On July 26, 2008, Cleveland landed him as a catching prospect in the trade that sent Casey Blake to L.A. Two years later, Santana was in the big leagues.
"That was a long time ago," Santana said of the last time he played third base. "It was my original position, but the last time I played there I was a lot younger. I don't have very much experience at the position."
That said, Francona was pleased by the reports on Santana's progress in winter ball. Santana indicated that Ramon Pena, the Indians' director of Latin American operations, was surprised by how good he looked at the position. Santana also said that Seattle's Robinson Cano and Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion -- fellow Dominicans -- offered positive feedback after watching him play third base.
This spring, all eyes will be on Santana as he continues the experiment.
"Everybody was surprised that I did a good job," Santana said. "The only guy that wasn't surprised was me, because I'm confident."