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Minor league report: Santana a top prospect

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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a "graduate" of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix, Arizona. Prior to getting into baseball, Bernie served as Dean of Campus Life at Loyola University in Chicago for 27 years. He's married and lives with his wife Lynn in Cave Creek, Arizona. He'll share his weekly thoughts on prospects with RotoWire from a scouting perspective.

CARLOS SANTANA - LEAGUE MVP TWO YEARS IN A ROW

Stabilizing third base in 2008 was so important to the Los Angeles Dodgers that they traded top catching prospect Carlos Santana and pitcher Jonathan Meloan to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman Casey Blake. Important to the transaction was the fact that the Indians paid Blake's salary for the remainder of the season. The Dodgers were then happy enough with Blake's production to re-sign him this past offseason.

Of course, the Dodgers aren't the only happy team following that major transaction. The Indians see Santana as their catcher of the future. Their confidence in his ability allowed the Indians to trade Victor Martinez to Boston for much needed pitching. Many feel Santana is the next version of Victor. That's saying an awful lot, but it's yet to be seen.

Meloan was the other player Cleveland received in the deal with Los Angeles. He was subsequently dealt by the Tribe and has pitched for the Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh organizations this season. After having been released by Pittsburgh, he was picked up by Oakland, where he's now pitching for the big league club. In fact, he threw two innings against his former Cleveland teammates when the Tribe visited Oakland. He'd lost velocity on his fastball, but he's now confident and back in form.

Carlos Santana was a free agent selection of the Dodgers from the Dominican Republic in August 2008. All he's done in his professional career is win the High-A California League Most Valuable Player award in 2008 and the Double-A Eastern League Most Valuable Player award in 2009. Two seasons, two MVPs. Who is this guy, Albert Pujols? Well, not quite, but he sure can hit.

Santana came to the United States as a second baseman/outfielder in the Dodgers system. The Player Development staff of Los Angeles decided to convert him to the catching position during the Fall Instructional League season in 2006. Since that time, he's been learning all the particulars and nuances of catching. It's a major transition for the 23 year old, but he's improving with every game. His greatest strength behind the plate remains his very strong arm, a feature he used in the field prior to the conversion. He's learning footwork and the handling of pitching staffs in his quest to make the big league club. Blocking the plate and shifting his weight are areas of constant work for the 5-foot-11, 188-pound receiver.

It's his bat and hitting mechanics that cause excitement among the Indians brass. This past season at Double-A Akron, Santana hit .290 with 23 home runs and 97 RBI in 130 games. Following the regular season, he helped lead his team to an Eastern League championship, enjoying success at the plate during the playoffs. He had a remarkable .515 slugging percentage and .943 OPS for Akron in his 428 at-bats during the season. He's been steady and sure at the plate.

Santana's swing is a little busy, with some parts in motion that look excessive, but he gets outstanding results from strong wrists and forearms. His follow through is consistent and the ball jumps off his bat. To his credit, he gets enough loft on the ball to reach the seats or the gaps in most fair ballparks. His power should continue to develop, but with his well-proportioned body, he should gain evenly distributed muscle to assist him over the course of a long season. He's selective at the plate, and for a young Double-A player he has very good plate discipline. He can also accept a base on balls, having walked 96 times at Akron. He struck out 83 times, a number that isn't troubling at all for a power-hitting catcher. For a catcher, his speed is at least major league average, and maybe a bit higher. When I saw him at the Indians spring training camp this past March, he looked very quick on his feet with the capability of stealing more than the two bases he swiped this season in Double-A. I think his speed will surprise some people if he's allowed to run.

The best part of Santana's projection? He, like Victor Martinez, is a switch hitter. What a great attribute for a catcher. And his splits are good. Although he's a better right- handed hitter than left, he still hits well from both sides (.329 vs. left and .270 vs. right). So, he does have some work to do. This past season he was consistent throughout, with the exception of a hitting decline during the month of June.

The Indians have some depth behind the plate, even with the departure of Martinez. Along with Santana, they have Kelly Shoppach, Chris Gimenez, Wyatt Toregas and Lou Marson as players capable of playing in the big leagues. Catching prospect Matt McBride's been shifted to the outfield with the arrival and emergence of Santana to the Indians organization. The depth allows Cleveland the opportunity to give Santana more time to develop his defense in the minor leagues. Temptation may rule the day however, and we could see him in the big leagues as soon as early 2010. My best guess would be following the All-Star Game, but much depends upon the success or failure of the list of catchers noted above and his development behind the plate. If the season were to start tomorrow, it appears that Marson looks to be the backup to Shoppach. Both will look over their shoulders and see Santana waiting for his call.

The Dodgers? Well, Casey Blake's helped tremendously at third base. As for the catching position? We all see the season Russell Martin is having at the plate. Not the best, but it's better of late. There isn't really that much depth in the farm system. They have A.J. Ellis, Lucas May and others. But Santana's in Cleveland, probably for a long time to come. After all is said and done, he could be "the one that got away." But for now, it appears everybody's happy. Article first appeared 9/24/09

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