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Carlos Santana Catches on with Cleveland

Don’t look now Dodger fans, but the ghost of the Casey Blake trade of 2008 is coming back to haunt.

Blake was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Los Angeles Dodgers at mid-season in a deal that had me scratching my head from the moment in was announced. In return for Blake, the Indians received breakout prospect Carlos Santana and minor league reliever Jonathan Meloan. Perhaps the Dodgers did not feel that the catcher’s success was for real and was a result of playing in the potent California League.

Blake was by no means a terrible acquisition for the Dodgers. The veteran third baseman has accumulated 6.7 WAR during his less than two full seasons in Los Angeles. He produced the third highest WAR (4.6) amongst NL third basemen in ’09, and the seventh highest in the Majors. However, he’ll turn 37 years old this season and was, at the time of the trade, and impending free agent (who was later re-signed to a three-year, $17.5 million contract that also has an option for 2012).

Santana, on the other hand, has the chance to be one of the top offensive catchers in the American League for quite some time. Now we’re not talking Joe Mauer (8 WAR) good, but think Victor Martinez or Brian McCann good (4-5 WAR a year).

Less than two weeks ago, Indians GM Mark Shapiro was asked about a potential Santana promotion and he told a local Cleveland newspaper:

“While he continues to flourish offensively, defensively he continues to be a work in progress,” said Shapiro. “His offensive ability is so strong that we feel it’s important to utilize every day possible in the minor leagues to develop his defense. His game calling and leadership have made strides, but his throwing has to improve.”

I’m not sure what changed in eight days, or if it was just a smoke screen, but Santana will make his MLB debut tonight against Washington. Shapiro’s stated concerns about the young catcher’s defense are justified. He’s a converted fielder who has only been behind the dish since 2007 after spending much of his time in the outfield and at third base prior to the move. Over the past three seasons, Santana’s caught-stealing success rate has been 23%, 30%, and 23% so far this season in triple-A. Between ’07 and ’09, he allowed 45 passed balls but had given up just one so far this season, which suggests some improvement in the area of receiving. Santana has also reportedly improved his game-calling skills.

On offense, there is little to not like. At the time of his promotion, he had an OPS of 1.044 and his triple-slash line was .316/.447/.597 in 196 at-bats. Santana also currently has a walk rate of 18% and an ISO rate of .280, so he’s displayed both patience and power. Those rates are not out of line with what he’s posted over the past three seasons. The 24-year-old switch-hitter also does a nice job of limiting his strikeouts and his rate currently sits at 16%. It’s not often that you find a catcher that hits for power and strikes out less than he walks (and can hit more than .300).

In his career, he’s been very good against both right-handed and left-handed pitching. He has a career OPS of .960 against lefties and .879 against righties. A pitcher cannot take his eye off of Santana on the base paths, either. The catcher has gone 18-for-24 in stolen base attempts over the past three seasons.

Fellow rookie Lou Marson, obtained from Philly last year in the Cliff Lee trade, was demoted to triple-A to make room for Santana. Former Minnesota Twin and Florida Marlin Mike Redmond will continue to serve as the back-up in Cleveland. Marson, 24, did himself no favors by hitting .191/.268/.262 with a .253 wOBA in 141 at-bats.

With the promotion of Santana, we have now seen the majority of top 2009-10 prospects reach the Majors. Here is FanGraphs’ Top 10 prospects list, which was released prior to the 2010 season.

1. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves
2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals
3. Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
4. Mike Stanton, OF, Florida Marlins
5. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants
6. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Texas Rangers
7. Carlos Santana, C, Cleveland Indians
8. Jesus Montero, C/1B, New York Yankees
9. Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
10. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

As you can see, six of the 10 players are now in the Majors. Of those still in the minors, Brown could be the next prospect called up, if Philly can find room for him. If not, then Alvarez could beat him to The Show. Either way, a lot of talent has already been promoted to the Majors this season and the Top 100 prospects list is going to have a real different look to it in 2011.