Indulging Carlos Santana At The Hot Corner

Lest we get totally overwhelmed by $200 million contracts and Jacoby Ellsbury jumping from Boston to the Yankees and the Astros actually signing major league free agents, let’s not let a smaller yet incredibly fun story pass us by.

27-year-old Indians catcher Carlos Santana, who hasn’t played third base with any regularity since way back in Single-A in 2006 (for a town [Vero Beach] that doesn’t even have a team any more, and for a club that had 43-year-old Pat Borders seeing time behind the dish) wants to give his old position a try next season.

In fact, he really wants to, as GM Chris Antonetti told reporters a few days ago:

“Carlos really is passionate about wanting to find a way to impact the team — any way he can,” Antonetti said. “Carlos took it upon himself to say, ‘Hey, I’ll not only catch, but if I can be serviceable at third base, it gives [Indians manager Terry Francona] potentially another option.’ So, to his credit, he’s down there at the complex, taking ground balls there and now he’ll progress into games in winter ball for an undetermined amount of time, but at least for a month.”

While it’s easy to pass this off as about as likely to work as Mark Trumbo‘s incredibly brief attempt to do the same for the Angels in 2012, we’ve also seen the Tigers put up with Miguel Cabrera there for two seasons, so perhaps the bar isn’t as high as we think. Besides, the Indians have other options at catcher and first, but may not at third base, so let’s indulge Santana here. Is this entirely crazy, or just a little crazy?

This is obviously in some part a response to the fact that in pieces of three seasons, incumbent third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has shown little indication that he’s going to take the third base job and run with it. In 682 plate appearances, or roughly a full season, he’s hit 23 homers (which is fine) along with a .244/.284/.411 line (which is not) and a poor 4.7 BB% (which is really not). Among 52 third baseman who have had at least 450 plate appearances over the last two years, Chisenhall ranks 41st on our WAR listings.

That’s a difficult performance to live with even from a plus defender at an up-the-middle position, yet Chisenhall hasn’t really impressed with the glove, either. Due to the lack of third base alternatives available — they’re not likely in on Chase Headley or Juan Uribe, Mike “OBP above .290 once in the last five years” Aviles isn’t ideal, and so far there’s been no indication of moving Asdrubal Cabrera — Cleveland likely has to fix this internally. But even if they’d like to give Chisenhall another chance to prove himself, he needs a platoon partner at the least, because a career 66 wRC+ against lefties is just not acceptable.

Normally, you’d never consider moving one of the best-hitting young catchers in baseball — fifth in wOBA over the last three seasons — to fill another need, except the Indians have already begun to do that. Fueled variously by the emergence of Yan Gomes, the desire to keep Santana healthy, and the fact that he’s not highly regarded as a catcher, Santana caught just 712.2 innings last year, the fewest of his three full seasons. He also caught just 10 of the final 40 games of the year as Gomes made the catching job his own.

Santana got some time in at first base, except that Nick Swisher played the position more regularly than he had in years, and that might increase in 2014 as David Murphy has arrived to take up playing time in the outfield corners. Santana ended up being the DH for 22 of the final 33 games, which is probably his best position… except that he’s made it clear he dislikes it there. (And the team invited Jason Giambi back for 2014, as well.)

So far, still not crazy. You have a catcher who isn’t a great catcher, with a bat that will play anywhere, on a team that has a second solid backstop, a below-average third baseman, and a roadblock at first. You also have a player who can read the tea leaves about where he’s likely to end up and wants to get on the field as much as he can. It makes sense to think about it. But has this ever worked before, ever?

In the integrated era of baseball, there’s been 23 players who have collected even 50 total games at both catcher and third base. That doesn’t account for players similar to Trumbo who couldn’t hack it at either position for even that long, but that’s sort of the point — we want to see success stories.

We can cut down that list of 23 pretty easily. Many were forgettable multipositional no-hit backups just trying to stick in the bigs like Danny Sheaffer and Alex Trevino; others made the move in reverse, attempting to make a decent bat look better at a rarer position, like Michael Barrett and Eric Munson; and some were late-career stars, like Johnny Bench.

Counting out the weak bat of Brandon Inge, that leaves us with exactly three players who somewhat fit the profile: Joe Torre, B.J. Surhoff, and Todd Zeile. Torre took his Hall of Fame bat out from behind the dish after his age-29 season; Zeile did so (reluctantly) after just one full year, at age-24, and Surhoff primarily stopped being a catcher after his age-27 year.

So it’s possible, just not altogether likely, especially with this specific player. Santana has the strong arm a third baseman might need, but hasn’t exactly impressed with the glove at first base, nor does what we’ve seen of his speed and agility make it seem likely he’ll show much range at all at third.

Then again, no one’s really talking about him moving there full-time, and he doesn’t need to in order to make this worthwhile. Considering how awful Chisenhall has been against lefty pitching, if Santana (career .373 wOBA against lefties) can merely prove that he’s worth giving 15-20 starts to at third, while also picking up time at catcher, first, and DH, that’s a pretty nice and unexpected value boost to the Indians. It doesn’t cost much, really, unless he gets hurt trying it, and teams like Cleveland thrive on creating something from nothing.

Or, perhaps more likely, Santana looks so bad at the position in winter ball or in spring training that he never sees a regular season inning there, the team can at least say they let him try, and we never talk about this again… at least until it’s Buster Posey‘s turn in a year or two.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

21 Responses to “Indulging Carlos Santana At The Hot Corner”

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  1. DNA+ says:

    Craig Biggio seems an obvious comp, since second base is generally thought to be a more difficult position than third base.

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    • Lenard says:

      Biggio is a lot more athletic than Santana though. And I use the word “is” because I’d be willing to bet that’s still true.

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  2. someone says:

    Sorry if I missed it in the article, but it’s probably worth noting that Santana was a third baseman in the minors for several years before he was converted to catcher around age 21.

    I don’t recall the exact reasons for the initial conversion, but I think it was because he had a strong arm at third, and the Dodgers had a need for catchers, as Lucas May was converted to catcher at the same time. I don’t recall how his defense was rated at third, and because he wasn’t much of a prospect until after he converted to catcher, I’m having trouble finding any old scouting reports.

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  3. That Guy says:

    Josh Donaldson didn’t catch enough in the majors to make your cut (he essentially converted to third about the same time he started seeing regular playing time in MLB), but he’d be an interesting comp. Should Santana not entirely embarrass himself at third, anyway.

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  4. Kenny says:

    Josh Donaldson was a minor league catcher and made his major league debut at catcher in 2010. He’s a plus defender at 3B.

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  5. Stuck in a slump says:

    To be fair, a lot of his problems at 1B seem to come from the fact that he’s short, and that he has stated in the past that he’d rather be catching (he has really looked lazy out there). To me, it’s entirely possible that he could be passable at 3B and perhaps a tick better there than he was at 1B.

    That said, when I first heard he was going to try 3B, my initial reaction was to cringe.

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  6. DINGERS! says:

    Awwwwww :(
    He’d get playing time with the Moneybags Dodgers.

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  7. Big Jgke says:

    I find it sort of baffling that the Twins haven’t tried this with Mauer. Seems like he has all the tools to be a plus defender at a more valuable position than 1B, but maybe he’s just so delicate at this point in his career that they can’t risk it.

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    • Matt says:

      I’ve also been thinking this about Mauer – he seems to have the skillset required for 3b. I think part of the reason they opted to move him to first instead is they have Sano coming up soon, and didn’t want to complicated his development.

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    • Bip says:

      It is also probably because 3B is really hard to play. If Mauer hasn’t played there before, you can’t just assume he would be fine at it.

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  8. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Santana isn’t a great catcher behind the dish, so this move makes lots of sense with Gomes behind the plate. Santana’s bat is good enough to play at 3B and put up solid WAR without great defense and I get the impression he wouldn’t play horribly there, unless his defense there is as bad as his catching…but then it eats into his value equally either way.

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  9. Kenneth Kitchin says:

    Pablo Sandoval?

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  10. Phil says:

    And technically Santana has the 4th highest wOBA out of any catcher over the past three years since Napoli has been a full time 1B/DH since moving to Boston

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  11. Newcomer says:

    My only question is, doesn’t Yan Gomes play a little 3B? Or was that a failed experiment; I haven’t seen it, I just saw that it had happened.

    So then the question is whether the combination of Santana at C and Gomes at 3B is more valuable than Gomes at C and Santana at 3B. How much better is Gomes behind the plate, and how good was Gomes at 3B?

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  12. Ed says:

    I don’t really get the Chisenhall hate. A few points:

    1) He may be 41st out of 52 in WAR but he’s tied with Jose Iglesias for last in PAs in that group. That should count for something.

    2) Baseball Reference gives him 1.6 total WAR the past two seasons. So it’s possible that Fangraphs is underrating him.

    I’m not saying he’s great but he seems to be average to slightly below average and he’s young enough to improve.

    (BTW, there’s no way that there are 52 3rd baseman with 450+ PAs the past two seasons. So something’s wrong with the analysis).

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    • x says:

      “BTW, there’s no way that there are 52 3rd baseman with 450+ PAs the past two seasons”
      You do realize he linked to the list? And that it means total, not per season?

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      • Ed says:

        Yes of course I realize that!

        Here’s the thing…when I run the same search on Baseball Reference, using a criteria of 75% of games played at 3rd base, I get 29 names. In order to get 52 names, I have to drop the criteria down to 25% of games played at 3rd base. Sorry but 25% is WAY too low of a criteria.

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        • x says:

          Interesting. If it were just Santana I’d say 25% is totally reasonable- even if this works, how much will Santana really play at 3b? But I could see how it might disadvantage Chisenhall in comparison. If I weren’t so lazy I’d try to check something like 300 PAs at 3b, but meh.
          (Also, I realize I could have come off a bit abrasive above- thanks for not taking it the wrong way.)

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  13. Matty Brown says:

    Ugly right side defensively with him and Cabrera.

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  14. fjtorres says:

    I was wondering about the Cooper signing: where his ABs would come from in the (unlikely?) event he pans out. (And the Indians really *are* panning for flecks of production, these days.)
    Looks like Francona will be deploying 162 ever-mutating lineups.

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