Carlos Santana at Third Base: Results are Mixed

March 10, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Carlos Santana (41) misses fielding a hit in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: -USA TODAY Sports

Limited Sample Size Leaves Indians Guessing on Carlos Santana

This year’s edition of spring training could be more accurately re-titled, “The Great Third Base Adventure.” With the emergence of Yan Gomes as the Indians’ everyday catcher and not wnting to be limited to full-time DH duty, Carlos Santana has been engrossed in the task of transitioning from behind the dish to the hot corner. He’s put in a tremendous amount of work, of which Terry Francona has praised him, but it’s hard to accurately gauge the success of the move thanks to limited opportunities.

Like with everything else when it comes to spring training, small sample size makes it almost impossible to accurately gauge how well or poorly a player is performing. It’s pretty much a guarantee that a player will not hit upwards of .450 once the season starts, nor will a player hit barely over .100, at least you hope. The same is true when analyzing defensive performance. That is why it is hard to properly analyze Santana’s transition to third base.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Indians still need to make a decision on whether or not to continue this third base experiment into the season or to call it a day and move forward with Santana playing a combination of Catcher, DH, and first base.

Recent reviews of Santana’s performance have been mixed. Those around the team on a daily basis, i.e. the coaching staff and Terry Francona, have raved about his commitment to getting better and the athleticism he has shown at times when making plays. Those not as close to the situation have been a bit more critical of his performance. This shouldn’t coma as a surprise, though. Those closest to Santana are not going to openly admit that he is awful and those in the national media are not there on a daily basis to watch the progression. Undoubtedly, Santana’s performance is probably somewhere in the middle.

From the Indians side of things, Terry Francona is saying all of the right things. In a recent press conference following a spring game, he had the following to say of Santana’s performance:

“They were very athletic [plays],” Francona said. “He didn’t let the game speed up. He moved his feet. He did everything. I don’t know if a lot of third basemen can make those plays. So we know it’s in there. Now, consistency in our game is huge, but it’s nice to see that that’s in there.”

Francona also talked about the plan moving forward with Santana during a separate press conference. While the Indians need to give Santana as many reps as possible at third, he also needs to get in some work behind the plate so he is prepared to handle the back-up catching duties. Video from the press conference is below (reload the page if video player fails to load).

From a national perspective, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick posted a decent-sized story last week concerning Santana’s progression as a third baseman, you can read it here. While Crasnick praised Santana for his commitment to making the change, he also presented the challenges facing Santana as he prepares for the possibility of playing third base on a full-time basis.

The problem is, no amount of solitary work on a back field can match the challenge of doing things at game speed, and Santana has had some hiccups in Arizona. Ominously, he made an error on the first ball hit to him in the Cactus League. In a recent game against the Cubs, he dropped a line drive before making an awkward, cringe-inducing lollipop throw to second base for a force play. One scout in Arizona said reviews on Santana’s ability to play third have been “mixed.” 

Third base presents some unique challenges because of the wide range of skills required. A third baseman might go an entire game without fielding a ball, then encounter a slow roller that requires him to charge hard, grab the ball barehanded and throw across his body while airborne. The play after that, he might get a bad-hop laser that puts his dental work at risk. 

Santana also needs to shed some of his old catching habits. Catchers are accustomed to springing from a crouch and firing the ball to second or third base in an attempt to cut down aspiring base stealers. Third basemen, in contrast, need to stay low to the ground and generate forward momentum when they throw. Much of the transition involves being mentally and physically engaged before the pitcher even delivers the ball to home plate. 

Also chiming in on Santana’s progress as a third baseman has been the Plain Dealer’s beat writer, Paul Hoynes. Of Santana’s work at the hot corner, Hoynes recently said that he has looked “stiff and uncomfortable.”

Right now, Lonnie Chisenhall and every other third basemen in camp look better than Santana when it comes to defense.

No.1 Santana hasn’t gotten a lot of chances. No. 2 when he gotten a chance, he’s s looked stiff and uncomfortable. Maybe things will improve when he starts playing two or three games in a row.

So as spring training concludes over the course of the next two weeks, the Indians will have a serious decision to make that will impact not just one, but two players. They will need to decide whether or not Carlos Santana has what it takes to be a serviceable option at third base. That also means deciding on the future of Lonnie Chisenhall. Does he have a place on this team in 2014 and beyond, or is it time to move on from the once heralded top prospect?

Regardless of what they decide, this is a decision that will have a lasting impact on the franchise moving forward. Making sure they get it right with Carlos Santana will be pivotal to their success in 2014.