Indians, Santana conduct grand experiment at third base in spring

Carlos Santana (left) started working on his third-base skills in the offseason.

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — On Tuesday, Indians manager Terry Francona finally told Carlos Santana enough.

"He needs a break," Francona said.

Every morning at 8:30 since the start of spring training, Santana had worked for 30 minutes with Indians coach Mike Sarbaugh on the nuances of playing third base.

Actually, Santana has been at it most mornings since last season ended, trying to relearn a position he last played regularly in 2006, when he was in A-ball.

All because, as he approaches his 28th birthday next month, he doesn’€™t want to become a full-time DH.

Santana is the Indians’ best offensive player, but Yan Gomes supplanted him as the Indians’ regular catcher in the second half of last season.

So, during the offseason, Santana would awaken at 5:30 a.m., drive 40 minutes to the Indians’ complex in the Dominican Republic and begin working out at third at 7 a.m.

He would return home by 11, sleep for a while and then join the Winter-Ball team in his native Santo Domingo at 4 p.m., first going through pregame drills at third with former major-league third baseman Fernando Tatis and then playing the position in games.

"To tell you the truth, it surprised me how far along he was when he got here this spring," Indians infielder Mike Aviles said. "When somebody changes positions, you expect that there is going to be a learning curve. I felt he was far along on the learning curve when he first got here."

Which isn’t to say that Santana will be the Indians’ Opening Day third baseman.

AROUND THE HORN

The experiment, Francona said, remains, "a work on progress." Santana’s competition at third, Lonnie Chisenhall, will not be easily dismissed, as evidenced by his two-run home run Tuesday off Diamondbacks right-hander Trevor Cahill.

Still, it is rare when an accomplished player in his prime attempts to change positions, and does so with as much gusto as Santana has shown this spring.

"His effort has been through the roof," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said.

That alone tells you something.

***

At the end of last season, Santana met with Francona and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti. The four-year veteran told them he did not like being a DH and did not want to be a DH. But this was not a case of a proud player complaining. Santana, noting Gomes’ emergence, said he understood why the Indians stopped using him regularly at catcher.

"Let’€™s not have this 15- 20-minute meeting and then forget about it," Francona recalled telling Santana. "Go back home, think about things and let’s get back together."

Santana thought about it and decided he wanted to return to third base.

The Indians were, understandably, skeptical. Club officials, according to Francona, told Santana in so many words, "Just because you want to be the third baseman doesn’t mean you are the third baseman."

But then Santana got to work. The Indians started imagining the possibilities if their switch-hitting catcher suddenly could play third.

Chisenhall, a left-handed hitter, would not need to face tough lefties. Gomes, a right-handed hitter, could sit against certain righties. Aviles or Ryan Raburn also could play third, and the DH spot would be flexible, creating more opportunities for Jason Giambi.

Most teams, when they want to rest their catcher, use a light-hitting backup. Santana would be a backup catcher who hits cleanup. The Indians, mimicking the platoon-happy Athletics, would squeeze maximum production out of multiple positions.

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"I just don’t see what we have to lose," Francona said.

Funny Francona should put it that way. The Dodgers more or less thought the same way when they made Santana a catcher in 2007, just over a year before trading him to the Indians for third baseman Casey Blake.

***

The Dodgers tried Santana in right and left field, at third and even at second. Santana was not proficient at any of those positions. As one club official put it, diplomatically, "We thought he had a better chance of catching" — and at the time, the Dodgers had just succeeded with converting Russell Martin from an infielder into a front-line catcher.

Which leads to an obvious question:

If Santana wasn’t good enough to play third then, why should the Indians think that, after seven years of catching, he would be good enough position now?

In 2012, the Angels tried to make Mark Trumbo a third baseman even though he had never played the position. Trumbo, like Santana, worked diligently in spring training. But he made two errors on Opening Day, and by early May the experiment was over.

"I have nothing but respect for anyone who is able to man that position. Of all the positions I tried, it was by far the toughest," said Trumbo, who is moving from first base to left field for the Diamondbacks this season.

"I’m rooting for (Santana). If he can do it, more power to him. That’s a tough transition."

The game can speed up in a hurry, especially at third.

Aviles said a third baseman must develop an infielder’s internal clock and position himself according to the speeds of the hitter and runners. Catchers have different responsibilities once a ball is hit. They also throw from a different angle.

"As a catcher, you bring your hands up high," Sarbaugh said. "That was the one thing early on — when he would catch a ground ball, he would stand up tall and lose his lower half. We’ve been emphasizing where he breaks his hands and making sure he stays down low through the play.

"He’s been doing great in the mornings. But you’ll see at times, especially if a play develops quickly, he’ll revert back to his old way of standing up tall."

Still, Sarbaugh sees progress.

Santana is working on his footwork and his backhand, his approach to grounders and his pre-pitch routine. A third baseman must be ready to move laterally and react quickly.

It’s a process, Sarbaugh said. Each day presents a new challenge. And the Indians’ opener in Oakland is less than three weeks away.

***

Francona freely admits that he still does not know whether Santana can play third, and that he might not know until after the season begins, should the experiment last that long.

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In a sense, though, Santana already has demonstrated his growth as a player, not that it was ever his intention to prove such a point.

"With where he is in his career, for him to try to make that transition not only shows me that, wow, he’s athletic enough to do it, but also, wow, that he’s doing this for us," Swisher said.

Indians pitcher Justin Masterson agrees.

"He could say, ‘I’m the catcher,’ " Masterson said. "But he wants the challenge. It’s a testament to who he is. He has developed that over the years.

"Coming in, he was probably like, ‘I’m here for me.’ But you could see him grow. Now it’s, ‘I’m here for we.’ "

Some Indians officials believe that Santana, like Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, developed more of a team mentality while helping the Dominican Republic win last year’s World Baseball Classic.

Santana did not dispute that assessment, adding that he also savored the experience of reaching the playoffs with the Indians last season and with his Winter-Ball club, Leones del Escogido.

"I like to win," he said.

His desire to play third is not about making himself more marketable as a free agent — his contract with the Indians runs for three more seasons and includes a club option for a fourth.

No, this is simply a happy example of a player’s goals coinciding with his team’s. Santana will serve as a catcher, DH and first baseman if he cannot play third, and the Indians will lose roster flexibility.

A lot is at stake, and the Indians are trying not to pass judgment too quickly.

Francona objected to a report in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that said Santana looked stiff and uncomfortable at third, noting that he had fielded only six grounders in exhibition games.

"I don’t think we have anywhere close to a sample size to know," Francona said. "I see what he does in the morning, his actions. That gives me confidence and hope. Saying that, I know you’ve got to do it in a game."

But so far?

"It hasn’t been anywhere remotely bad," Francona said. "For someone to say that, they’re not being fair. He’s got work to do. But for a guy that has caught for the last (seven) years and played third for a month, I think he’s done an amazing job. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work. But he has done a great job."

For himself. And for his team.

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