The left side of the Cleveland Indians infield was billed as the team’s source of strength, but it was a guy on the other side who led them in 2019.
The Cleveland Indians entered the 2019 season with a truckload of question marks. Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor began the year on the IL. The Tribe’s Opening Day lineup included replacements Brad Miller and Eric Stamets, not to mention Tyler Naquin batting in the three-hole.
Hanley Ramirez began the season as an all-or-nothing veteran lottery ticket, and his tenure in Cleveland lasted less than a month. Jose Ramirez was not supposed to be a question mark, but he slashed .213/.317/.324 through the end of May with just four home runs.
Cleveland’s starting rotation was supposed to anchor the team’s playoff hopes–which it did, in many ways, but not for the reasons it was projected to. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger all went on the IL early, and stayed there for varying yet extensive time frames.
From the multitude of uncertainties emerged a stabilizing force named Carlos Santana. Much of what Santana did in 2019 was not surprising. He rarely struck out and walked often, contributing to his customary high on-base percentage. He offered a disciplined plate approach with power potential in the middle of the order.
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But even the most optimistic of projections could not have predicted that Santana would have a career year and end the season as the Indians’ most valuable player. His .281/.397/.515 slash line was by far the best of his career. He tied his career-high in homers (34), blew his previous career-high in runs scored out of the water (110), and set a personal record for RBIs (93).
Santana’s 4.4 fWAR was more than a run higher than the 3.3 mark he posted in 2016, which was his best such total coming into the season.
He almost single-handedly willed the Indians to their two most important victories of the season: a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning of an August 11 game in Minnesota, and a walk-off solo shot one day later against the Red Sox. The first tied the Tribe atop the AL Central, the second gave them a fleeting half-game lead over the Twins. Both occurred immediately after blown saves.
Santana was one of two Indians hitters with a wRC+ above 100 through the end of May. Those first two months of the season placed the Indians behind a seemingly insurmountable deficit in their division, and without him the hole would have been deeper.
It was a tumultuous season that ultimately ended with more downs than ups, but Santana’s consistency throughout the year was one of the key bright spots that allowed the Indians to remain competitive until the end of September. In an offseason full of curious decisions, the trade that brought the Indians first baseman back home turned out to be anything but questionable.