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Indians preview capsules: The catchers and corner infielders

Santana's potential position change clouds the catcher/corner infield picture

Indians preview capsules: The catchers and corner infielders
Carlos Santana (Photo: WFNY)
March 8, 2014
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As a part of IBI's beginning of season festivities, we have preview capsules on all 55 players currently in major league camp with at least some chance of helping the big league team (it was 54, but the acquisition of Justin Sellers added one more). The next batch of these running today are the catchers and corner infielders.

There is just not much more to it; spring training is here and real baseball is just around the corner. Enjoy!

Lonnie Chisenhall, 3BLonnie Chisenhall (Photo: ESPN)

Considering that Lonnie Chisenhall spent parts of the past three seasons in the major leagues, it is easy to forget that the third baseman is only 25 years old. The results to date have been underwhelming, but when discussing Chisenhall, it is best to keep some perspective on the situation.

In his major league career, Chisenhall has played in 203 games and batted 682 times. In that time -- a little more than one full season -- the third baseman has 23 home runs, a .244/.284/.411 line, and 1.1 fWAR. While that on-base percentage is pretty ghastly, Chisenhall has shown enough pop to be only a little below-average on offense. He is below-average as a whole, but it is important to note that Chisenhall is not some scrub; he has just played at the level of a second-division starter instead of the good-to-great regular he was supposed to be.

Chisenhall shows a distinct platoon split, though he has not faced all that many left-handers in the major leagues (553 plate appearances against right-handers, 129 against lefties). His stats against right-handers are average (.256/.298/.416 line), but while his .194/.225/.387 line against left-handers shows some power, he is extremely boom-or-bust. There is a chance that Chisenhall could improve his performance against left-handers with more reps, but with Cleveland in position to contend, Chisenhall likely will not get that chance at the major league level in 2014.

Chisenhall still has the pedigree as a top prospect to put it all together one of these years, though time is starting to run out. The third baseman only has one minor league option left, and with Carlos Santana working out at third base and getting strong early reviews, Chisenhall may be left without a spot on the major league team. Chisenhall's batted ball profile suggests that his .274 career BABIP has been extremely unlucky, and while it is possible Chisenhall just makes poor contact, there does seem to be some upside with the third baseman. He has been around long enough to see the shine come off of his prospect star, but 2014 could be the year that Chisenhall finally sees things click.

Yan Gomes, CYan Gomes (Photo: ESPN)

The unheralded part of the Esmil Rogers trade in November 2012, Yan Gomes was the breakout star for Cleveland and looks to be a key building block for the future. The first Brazilian-born major leaguer wrestled the starting catching job from Carlos Santana with his 3.7 fWAR performance, posting that high mark in only 88 games.

The tempting thing to do when a player does that well in that little time is extrapolate the results out and claim Gomes could post a 6.0 WAR or better season in 2014. That is unlikely, though. Gomes' BABIP in 2013 was .342 -- a pretty high number -- and his expected BABIP based on his batted ball profile is a closer-to-average .295. Take out that potentially unsustainable BABIP and Gomes' .294/.345/.481 line in 2013 would drop, leaving him less effective on offense.

Part of the regression on BABIP for Gomes could come in his free swinging ways. The catcher swung at nearly half of the pitches thrown to him in 2013, and while he was far from the most trigger-happy hitter, it does typically mean you are swinging at pitches you cannot do much with. Gomes swung at pitches outside of the strike zone at a fairly high rate but was only middle of the road in total contact rate. He should be able to survive with that approach, though expecting him to replicate his elite 2013 production is likely foolish.

Even if Gomes is slightly worse on offense in 2014 he should remain a very valuable contributor. Catchers averaged a .245/.310/.388 line in 2013 -- meaning Gomes can survive plenty of regression and still be above-average. Plus, Gomes rates out quite well as a defender, giving him value with his glove as well as his bat. Teams typically have to choose between offense and defense with their catchers, but based on what he accomplished in 2013, Gomes actually offers both. I would still expect some real regression, but even if Gomes is only worth 3.0 WAR for a full season in 2014 -- well below his 2013 rate -- he will be an above-average contributor.

Carlos Santana, C/1B/DH/3B/???Carlos Santana (Photo: ESPN)

The underrating of Carlos Santana is absurd and needs to stop now. Santana was above-average in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage en route to a .268/.377/.455 line with a 135 wRC+.  Among qualified hitters, Santana finished tied for 22th in wRC+ -- an all-encompassing offensive statistic -- and one of the hitters he was tied with was Giancarlo Stanton. Plus, Santana's walk rate consistently remains elite while he strikes out well-below the league average rate. Given that Santana also brings above-average power to the table, no one should ever complain about the switch-hitter's offense. No one.

Santana should be the anchor in the middle of Cleveland's lineup this year, but what position he will play in the field is currently up in the air. Yan Gomes is in line to catch more in 2014 -- taking time from Santana -- which originally left the switch-hitter in line for more time at designated hitter. After spending time working out at third base in winter ball, however, there is a chance that Santana could move back to his former spot at the hot corner.

We cannot know how effective Santana will be defensively until he spends some time there in spring training and in real major-league action, but using Miguel Cabrera as a guide, playing Santana at third base may not be as disastrous as it seems at first glance. The designated hitter position carries a high offensive standard, one so high that it is essentially a wash with Cabrera-level defense. If Santana can play third base as well as Cabrera -- who by all accounts was one of the worst defenders at the hot corner -- then it actually will not be that much of an issue.

Of course, playing Santana at third base leaves a hole in the designated hitter spot, one that does not seem to have any internal options available. But even if Santana only plays a handful of games at third -- possibly platooning with Lonnie Chisenhall against left-handed pitching -- and is a combination of designated hitter, first baseman, and catcher the rest of the time, the added flexibility will help Francona maximize Cleveland's offensive production.

Nick Swisher, 1BNick Swisher (Photo: ESPN)

Nick Swisher may have made waves amongst the fanbase in the first year of his four-year, $56 million contract, but the results on the field were underwhelming. Swisher, who turned 33 years old after the season, saw his power and on-base percentage drop in 2013, leading to a .246/.341/.423 line and his worst offensive season by wRC+ since 2008. Granted, Swisher's wRC+ was still 116 -- an above-average figure -- but seeing decline in year-one of a four-year free agent contract is far from ideal.

Much was made of Swisher's shoulder injury and how that could be responsible for his relative lack of power. Swisher never went on the disabled list for the injury, though it was widely acknowledged that he was limited on some level by the it. The bigger long-term issue for Swisher was his on-base percentage, however, which sunk from .364 to .341. You can live with a veteran's power starting to wane if he retains his elite on-base ability. If both go, however, there is nothing left to carry his offense.

Now, the silver lining on Swisher's on-base ability is his expected BABIP based on his batted ball data was .312, a mark much more in line with his recent performances and higher than the .288 figure he ended with in 2013. The lower BABIP could be a byproduct of the shoulder injury, though with the way BABIP can fluctuate, it is also possible that Swisher was just unlucky in 2013. Either way, assuming the shoulder injury does not linger, Swisher will be both healthy and likely luckier in 2014, resulting in a rise in BABIP and a corresponding rise in on-base percentage.

Despite 2013 being rightfully characterized as a down year, Swisher was still worth 2.4 fWAR, and that accounts for him moving to first base and its higher offensive expectation. Even though he saw some stats dip, Swisher is still the high-walk decent strikeout rate hitter who adds value with his bat. Combined with his strong personality (which seems to help in the clubhouse), Swisher is someone who should help the team again in 2014 and could easily be headed for a bounce back year of sorts.

Jesus Aguilar, 1BJesus Aguilar (Photo: MiLB)

Jesus Aguilar first turned heads in 2013 when he set the Double-A Akron Aeros (now Akron RubberDucks) single-season RBI record by driving in 105 runs. But RBI are useless for evaluating an individual batter's offense, and the first baseman's .275/.349/.427 line and 16 home runs in 130 games left something to be desired. Aguilar was added to the 40-man roster following the season, but he still was not a priority prospect.

The first baseman did his best to change that in winter ball, tearing up the Venezuelan League to the tune of a .330/.408/.610 line and 22 home runs in 68 games. That domination in winter ball is the continuation of Aguilar's strong batting line following swing changes he made in early June to make his swing more geared for the majors. After June 4, Aguilar posted a .292/.366/.462 line in 344 plate appearances in Akron, showing more power and on-base ability much like he did in winter ball.

Aguilar is not a Gold Glove first baseman, but he is not a detriment there either. As long as the Aguilar maintains the form he has shown since June, he should be up helping the big league club sometime mid-season after a short layover in Columbus to start the year.

David Adams, 2B/3BDavid Adams (Photo: ESPN)

Though David Adams was a third round selection by the Yankees in 2008 and he routinely performed throughout the minor leagues (.291/.376/.441 line in 412 games), the infielder was never highly rated as a prospect. That lack of a high rank looks smart right now, as Adams struggled in his exposure to the big leagues in 2013 (.193/.252/.286 line in 43 games) and the Yankees non-tendered him following the season. Adams had some issues with ankle injuries coming up through the minor league system, but as a disciplined hitter with the ability to play second and third base, the 26-year-old should open the year in Columbus while serving as a depth option for the big league club.

David Cooper, 1BDavid Cooper (Photo: ESPN)

Even before David Cooper suffered a back injury that nearly ended his career in August 2012, the 2008 first round pick's star started to lose its luster. Cooper showed some decent hitting ability at the big league level (.270/.310/.441 in 72 games), but with his limited defensive profile, the first baseman really needs to hit a little more than this. At only 27 years old and with a back reinforced by a titanium plate and two screws, Cooper could be able to get back on track and continue his career. He started that road back in 2013 with 13 games in the Cleveland minor league system and this year will look to pick up where he left off.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@gmail.com. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.

User Comments

Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 10:20 AM EDT
Also should note he was playing the OF as soon as he came state-side. Played 7 games in the OF in 2005 and 14 at 3B. in 2006 played 38 games at 3B and 52 games in the OF.

Also feel Santana is way more athletic than some give him credit for. Sure he's not the most athletic guy but physically he could play 3B or the OF in my opinion with work. Maybe never be good at any spot but could handle them.
Hermie13
March 10, 2014 - 10:03 AM EDT
Interesting note on Santana....while he was originally a 3B....he actually played more minor league games in the OF than 3B. Actually payed more games in the OF in the minors than 3B, 1B, and 2B combined.
GoingGoingGone
March 9, 2014 - 6:13 AM EDT
If Chisenhall is going to make it in the majors, it might be best for him to do it with a non contender. He needs to consistantly play regardless of performance(to a certain point) as there is nothing for him left to prove in the minors. I don't know what he is worth and I don't really care. I just hate to see a kid with talent get "jacked" around.
Jwahoo
March 8, 2014 - 8:07 PM EST
I really like these by the way to get ready for the season.

I think you probably start off with Chiz and Santana sharing 3rd. Give Francouer a chance to play vs lefties and wait and see where Aguiler is. Then it just depends on what those guys do. Jram could be the stealth pick.
Jim Piascik
March 8, 2014 - 2:52 PM EST
It was Josh Bell, who was ranked by Baseball America as the Dodgers' ninth-best prospect before the 2007 season (the year Santana was moved). Santana was ranked 23rd that year, with a note from the Dodgers' scouting chief Logan White about being aggressive about moving players to catcher.

And Cleveland's made a living off of getting great value from trades like Blake for Santana. I'm going to give the front office credit for that one. :)

I wrote the move up back in December when it was announced (http://www.indiansbaseballinsider.com/blog/envisioning-carlos-santana-at-third-base-58750) with many more words than these capsules allowed. But basically, I do think he was moved before he had a chance to really work at it and improve. Whether he can fast-forward all that time and training and be a major league third baseman this year? Who knows? Probably not, but he's come a long way quickly.
Hawk1228
March 8, 2014 - 2:23 PM EST
Jim
That may very well be true but we did get him for Casey Blake and I always wondered why the Dodgers would give up on a highly rated prospect. That prospect with pedigree ever surpass him in any prospect publications? I think the Dodgers knew all along he was all bat no glove and without the benefit of the DH really no room for him in that organization
Jim Piascik
March 8, 2014 - 1:53 PM EST
I agree to an extent. But Santana was moved off third in the minors because a prospect with a better pedigree (at the time) was at the same level. Not necessarily because the Dodgers didn't think he'd get better with time.

It's not a guarantee, but as has been written on IBI before, the faith Santana winter ball team showed in him is pretty telling of how far he's come already. They're only playing to win and trusted him at third in the playoffs. He's certainly still raw, but there could be something there.
Hawk1228
March 8, 2014 - 1:28 PM EST
I really do not think comparing Santana to Cabrera at third is a legitimate comparison. Miguel played the position for the Marlins at the major league level. Santana was moved off the position in the lower minors. That's all that needs to be said when trying to justify him playing 3rd base on an everyday basis. Can he play third from time to time spelling Lonnie at third? It may be possible, but in a close game I would be willing to wager a few sodas that most relief pitchers would be hoping for a late inning defensive replacement.

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