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Tribe Happenings: The Santana third base experiment rolls on

Tribe Happenings: The Santana third base experiment rolls on
January 21, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Continuing the Santana experiment

The Indians have been hard at work this offseason making incremental upgrades to the roster and the depth available to them.

They have lost the likes of Joe SmithChris PerezDrew Stubbsand Scott Kazmir, but have added players like David MurphyJohn AxfordJosh Outman and several interesting minor league signings such as Shaun MarcumJeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan.

Whether or not any of those moves have netted the Indians a plus or minus as far as improving the team, the most impactful change this offseason has been one that has not involved the addition or subtraction of a player but a change in position by the team’s most impactful hitter, Carlos Santana.

Around the end of November it was reported that Santana would go to the Dominican Republic to begin working out at third base in an experiment that he and the team agreed to look into this offseason. After some time playing in Instructional League games at the Indians academy in Boca Chica to reacquaint himself at the position, he was given the all clear to start playing third base in league games in the highly competitive Dominican Winter League.

What has transpired over the last five to six weeks in the Dominican Republic has been one of the biggest offseason developments for the Indians in years as he has legitimately proven himself at the position so much so that the Indians plan to go into spring training with him as an legitimate option at third base. Whether or not he is able to make a conversion into a full time third baseman or he is just a part-time third baseman, it will be a change that could pay huge dividends for the Indians in the short and long term.

In the short term, Santana would provide a suitable option to plug in and play at third base this season. Whether or not he would be the regular third baseman while Lonnie Chisenhall is on the bench or in Triple-A, or Chisenhall is the regular while Santana plays third when a lefty is on the mound and plays another position when a righty is on the mound, all of that is debatable at the moment. But there is no denying how much of an impact the lineup would have from such a move as he could provide the Indians protection at a position of need and at the same time open up the designated hitter position for someone else.

Chisenhall has largely disappointed to date hitting just .244 with a .694 OPS in 203 career major league games. He has been inconsistent with his performance both offensively and defensively, and after two and a half years as the main option at the position the Indians may have grown impatient and decided to look for an alternative solution at the position – or another option.

This is where Santana comes into play. A Gold Glove is probably not in his future at third base, but chances are he can be a tick below average or just average defensively at the position, something the team can live with if his offense carries over to the position.

Among all catchers in the majors last season with at least 250 plate appearances, Santana ranked ninth with a 3.6 WAR. He was also second with a 14.5% walk percentage and third with a 135 wRC+. Those are pretty good numbers offensively and a nice WAR overall, but his defense behind the plate diminished his value.  By limiting his time behind the plate to backup duty to Yan Gomes and instead getting him in the field at a less demanding position at third base, his WAR value might see an uptick. Consider that no other third baseman last season – not even Miguel Cabrera – had a higher walk rate than Santana and his wRC+ and OPS would slide right into the top five at the position, and you have a player who might see his WAR value go up simply based on a position change.

In the long term, Santana could become an option to fill the Indians everyday need at third base until his contract runs out after the 2017 season. More importantly, moving him to third base would open up two spots in the lineup for two important young players for the Indians. The first of which obviously is Gomes who has been given the reins to the catching position, and so long as he stays healthy and performs, it is his job with the Indians for at least the next half decade. But what it also does is create a defined path for the Indians to get big slugging first baseman Jesus Aguilar on the roster when they want and not have to worry about making a spot for him in-season.

Aguilar currently projects to open the season at Triple-A Columbus, but after the year he had last season at Double-A Akron (.275 AVG, 16 HR, 105 RBI, .776 OPS) and the offseason he has had in the Venezuela Winter League (.330 AVG, 22 HR, 61 RBI, 1.018 OPS), he has opened up a lot of eyes and the Indians have a strong interest in getting him to Cleveland at some point in 2014. It appears unlikely he would open the season with the team, but he could be in line for a quick callup shortly after the start of the season and be the missing piece to the puzzle to fill a need the Indians have for a productive middle of the order hitter with some pop from the right side.

Getting back to Santana, the Indians understand that this is something that will not be proven overnight and that he needs time to get firmly reacquainted with the position and to be serviceable there as a major league option. This is why the report floating around that he is expected to be the Indians everyday third baseman might be a bit premature. They may ultimately decide as much after six weeks of work with him this spring, but there is no way they can feel that way about him right now after 20-some games in winter ball. The Indians know he will play some third base for them this coming season, they just don’t yet know how much he will play there until they see him in their environment in spring training, what the composition of the team is like and just how far along he comes defensively.

That said, Santana is getting glowing reports on his defense at third base. Not glowing as in he is another Brooks Robinson in the making at the hot corner, but glowing as in how much he has surprised defensively and how he has become a legit option there. He has shown some athleticism and soft hands, and of course has the strong arm that he has shown over the years as a catcher.

The development of Santana this offseason has added a new wrinkle to the potential composition of the team when they depart from Arizona and start the 2014 season. If he will be a part-timer at third base, it creates an opportunity for the Indians to use other regulars at designated hitter in order to rest them and give the bench players an opportunity to play regularly. If he becomes the regular third baseman, then it would create a roster spot since Chisenhall would be expected to go to Columbus to play every day which would mean someone makes the team as a backup catcher or extra outfielder. Whether that player is someone recently signed like Francoeur, Morgan, orDavid Cooper or a yet to be signed player remains to be seen. Or, perhaps it could be what sparks the fire for the debut of Aguilar.

Either way, the impact of Santana’s experiment at third base this offseason has already had a big effect on the roster, and as he gains confidence at the position and the Indians gain confidence in him, it will only continue to add to the potential impact.

Arbitration notes

The arbitration process moved to its next stage on Friday when unsigned players and teams publicly exchanged salary figures. This is the final step before players and teams begin to go in front of an arbitrator on February 1st, although that date is not exactly when such a hearing would occur as most meetings will probably happen more toward mid-month.

The Indians were able to avoid arbitration with lefty Marc Rzepczynski as they agreed to a one-year $1.375 million deal for 2014. The deal includes incentives of $25,000 for 55 appearances and another $25,000 at 60 appearances, which if he remains healthy and effective would put him right in line to make the projected $1.4 million that MLBTradeRumors.com predicted at the start of the offseason.

But the Indians still have four players eligible for arbitration that remain unsigned. Justin Masterson is requesting $11.8 million while the Indians are offering $8.05 million; Michael Brantley wants $3.8 million while the Indians are offering $2.7 million; Vinnie Pestano wants $1.45 million and the Indians are offering $975,000; and Josh Tomlinwants $975,000 and the Indians are offering $800,000.

Much should not be read into the gap in the arbitration numbers where a player may appear to be requesting too much or a team may seem to be lowballing a player. In most cases, now that both the team and player know the true range they are working with and also what other arbitration eligible players for other teams are requesting, deals are still made to avoid arbitration. I would expect both Pestano and Tomlin to be resolved rather quickly, although the near $500,000 gap with Pestano is larger (and maybe more complex) than it appears.

The two big arbitration eligibles are Masterson and Brantley. A lot has been said about the $3.75 million gap between the Indians and Masterson, but if the two parties split the difference right down the middle at about $1.8 million then that would put Masterson at about $9.7-9.9 million for 2014 – which is right in line with his $9.7 million projection by MLBTradeRumors.com.

For me, the most interesting arbitration case is Brantley. He wants $3.8 million which is right in line with the $3.7 million projection by MLBTradeRumors.com, but the Indians are below that figure by $1 million. The Indians have not gone to arbitration since 1991 when Greg Swindell won and Jerry Browne lost, but Brantley and maybe Masterson could break that 22-year streak if both sides reach an impasse – although I still believe they ultimately will agree to a deal and avoid arbitration.

For those that wonder why the hassle over a few hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars or two, it all adds up. And if the teams always gave the players what they wanted, then it would only help continue the rapid increase in player salaries. And by the same token if the players always agreed to what the teams wanted, then it would hinder the salary growth for players not yet eligible for free agency. Such is why an arbitrator sometimes has to enter the mix if the team and player are unable to agree on a figure.

It is a nasty process which team and player like to avoid, but in some cases it is unavoidable. While it is possible, I don’t see such a case currently with the Indians, and in fact, if anything the Indians are exploring long term deals with both Brantley and Masterson. A one year figure may ultimately be reached without a long term deal, but it won’t limit the two parties from agreeing to a long term commitment later this offseason or even during the season.

Instant replay gets approval

 Last Thursday, Major League Baseball took a giant leap when the MLB Player’s Association and World Umpires Association unanimously approved the new expanded replay setup at the quarterly Owners Meetings.

Managers will now have the power to challenge one play prior to the seventh inning. If the play is overturned, then they can challenge one more play – but only a maximum of two plays can be challenged by a manager whether or not the play is confirmed or overturned. Plays from the seventh inning on would be replayed solely by request of the umpire crew chief.

Over the past few seasons video replay had been limited to boundary calls on home runs and had to be initiated by the umpires.  If a home run was reviewed, the entire umpire crew would leave the field, watch the replay and then return and announce their decision.

Now, the crew chief for the on field umpires will get on a hardwired headset in a location around home plate where they will contact the Replay Command Center at MLBAM headquarters in New York. The on field umpires will no longer be involved in the replay decision and the Replay Command Center will review the video and provide a final decision on the ruling.  MLB is in the process of hiring two additional four-man umpire crews for the 2014 season which will allow an extra set of umpires to rotate through New York to review video replays and be on hand to confirm or overturn umpire decisions that are reviewed.

As to what plays can be reviewed? Well, according to MLB a great majority of plays are reviewable including home runs, ground rule doubles, fan interference, boundary calls, plays at a base, force plays, tag plays, fair-foul calls in the outfield, trap plays, players hit by a pitch, timing plays, touching the base, passing runners, and dispute plays involving ball-strike counts, outs, score and substitutions. All other plays including interference and obstruction are not reviewable.

Each team is allowed to have an employee monitor video and be in direct communication with the manager on whether or not to challenge a play. To initiate a replay challenge the manager only needs to verbally inform his intention to an umpire in a timely manner. The managers, coaches, players and fans will also be able to see all plays on the video boards in the stadium, including close plays, something which for years was not allowed at stadiums.  Home and road teams must have equal access to any video, so home teams will not be allowed to have extra cameras setup for private use and they have to show close plays that may initiate a challenge from the road manager that would work against the home team.

I love this new setup and am happy that MLB has finally embraced technology to improve the game and help ensure that the right call is made. Part of the allure of baseball is the human element with umpires and the subjective nature of ball and strike calls as well as fair-foul, out and safe and so on, and for the most part these subjective decisions made by umpires will not be affected. But where video replay will help is when a call was clearly made in error, something of which that can have a dramatic impact on a game, series and sometimes a season.

It is a work in progress and I am sure that the video replay system will be tinkered with over the next few years as they learn what works and what doesn’t work and what is missing, but it looks like it is here to stay.

Parting shots

The Indians have added Jim ThomeOmar Vizquel, and Charles Nagy to the Tribe Fest lineup. Tribe Fest runs this coming weekend January 25-26 and for more information go to Indians.com. … The Indians signed outfielder Nyjer Morgan last week to a minor league deal with an invite to major league spring training. For my thoughts on that signing, check out my article I wrote about it at Fox Sports Ohio. … The Indians are considered one of the top two favorites to land free agent right-handed pitcher Scott Baker. He is expected to sign a minor league deal with whomever he signs, and if he signs with the Indians would jump right into the mix in the highly contested fifth starter battle this spring. … Omar Vizquel has been named to the Indians Hall of Fame and will be officially inducted in a ceremony on June 21st before the Indians-Tigers game … Last, be on the lookout for the start of the annual prospect ranking countdown on the site later this week! And by popular request, the book may in fact still be a possibility but available later in the spring.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Hermie13
January 22, 2014 - 10:16 AM EST
I get the Miggy comparisons...but couple big differences. For one, Miggy was a Major League 3B before being dealt to Detroit. He played in 310 games at 3B over the previous two seasons prior to the trade (2006-2007). Way more experience there than Santana had prior to getting work this winter. He also had established his bat, whereas we're still waiting on Santana get get over that hump and be an elite hitter.

And lastly..and IMO the biggest/most important difference....Miggy played ONLY 3B (and handful of games at DH), whereas Santana is being discussed as a super utility guy playing 3B, 1B, and catcher. I think this moving Santana all over the diamond thing is gonna blow up in the Tribe's faces. Either play 3B and don't catch, or catch some and play no 3B. It's too demanding to expect him to do both and expect him to be our best hitter in the middle of the lineup.

I'm sure it's probably happened...but I'm not really finding any examples of a team taking their best offensive player from the previous season, taking away his starting position and making him a super utility player....
Rich
January 22, 2014 - 9:48 AM EST
ATF ends and shortly after The Prospect Countdown begins. Oh yeah!

I knew you wouldn't leave us spinning in the wind, Tony. Excuse me while I start carefully backing down off the ledge.
Tony
January 22, 2014 - 12:46 AM EST
yeah, everyone felt the Tigers were crazy last year for putting Cabrera at third....but he showed that he was not that big of a detractor to the defense. I mean, the guy was not *good* but even if he was just above average and not elite at the plate, he made the move worth it. Might be the same thinking by the Indians here.....to a degree.
yourtribe
January 22, 2014 - 12:01 AM EST
If Carlos is a below avg 3d baseman, he's no worse than chiz. So why not play him there? If the big man in det. can do it, why not carlos?
Tony
January 21, 2014 - 2:40 PM EST
A lot of the proof about whether Santana can play third base is coming from his early work before games. Scouts have liked what they have seen, and the Indians have been present and monitoring all of his work as well. Again, no one is expecting him to be an above average defender there....but if he is able to be average or even just slightly below average, it might be a winning decision for the Indians. It all just adds to the intrigue this spring in Arizona and makes for an interesting storyline to watch.
shy
January 21, 2014 - 11:33 AM EST
Replay set up is good. I think having Torre running the show is brilliant. Perfect meld of old school respect for the game and a/v technology. Manager can use the challenge like a pinch hitter, becomes part of strategy. Balls and strikes still in the eyes of the beholder as they should be. There were many ways to get it wrong and I think they found the way to get it right. As for Santana, the guy is athletic but the throws tend to sail on him. Unless they get somebody 6'8" playing first I think it's a problem. I wouldn't consider it without a dedicated experienced coach and a thousand live reps with all kinds of grounders and throwing positions.
GSon
January 21, 2014 - 11:28 AM EST
Instead of wondering about Carlos Santana's play at 3B,, watch it and decide for yourself:

http://www.letsgotribe.com/2014/1/20/5328038/dominican-winter-league-championship-broadcast-carlos-santana-news

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