Does Santana need to win third base job, or Chisenhall lose it?

How the Indians third base position plays out will have a great impact on the futures of both Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall.

Without question the most interesting storyline for the Cleveland Indians this spring is which one of Lonnie Chisenhall or Carlos Santana will break camp as the Indians regular third baseman.

There are subplots aplenty with this position battle.

It involves two former number one prospects in the system who were the catcher and third baseman of the future and who by now were expected to be firmly established at those positions in Cleveland. Instead, you have Santana looking to make a transition from catcher to third and Chisenhall trying to hold onto his position with a grip that is slipping by the day. On top of that, the decision the Indians make will have a ripple effect that impacts so many decisions the Indians make later this spring to round out the Opening Day 25-man roster.

The way things look right now, it appears as if the Indians are giving Santana every opportunity to win the job. If he proves capable of playing there, then it probably will be his at the outset of the season. They know based on his performance in winter ball that he can handle the position on a limited basis and that at worst case he could be the platoon partner that allows Terry Francona to sit Chisenhall against lefties. But what they want to find out is if he can play 100-plus games at the position for them this season.

That is what this spring will be about for Santana. Not so much for Chisenhall to play out of his mind and win the job outright or for him to fall flat on his face and lose it, but for Santana to give the Indians the confidence that they believe he can handle the position on a daily basis to start the season.

Let’s face it, there is really nothing either one of them can prove from a numbers standpoint this spring. Throw out the batting averages and production numbers as they mean nothing in this contest.

Chisenhall has a history of being Mr. March as he has gone out and hit the cover off the ball in spring training in two of the last three springs hitting .500 with a 1.451 OPS in 26 at bats in 2011 and .400 with a 1.123 OPS in 60 at bats in 2013. He is a career .331 hitter with a .962 OPS over 148 at bats in 63 career spring training games. Yet, he has struggled to find any consistency during the Major League regular season hitting just .244 (.284 on-base percentage) with a .694 OPS over the last three seasons. Would another big spring training showing at the plate really prove anything at this point for Chisenhall?

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Santana on the other hand could go out and hit .150 for the spring and look awful at the plate in doing so, yet it won’t matter because he has a history of success when the games really matter during the regular season. He is a career .254 hitter (.367 on-base percentage) with an .814 OPS in 498 games during the Major League regular season and continues to get better every year.

Think back to the areas of concern with the roster at the end of last season. The Indians had left field and center field locked up with Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn. Shortstop, second base and first base set with Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher. Catcher was covered with Yan Gomes. The two question marks on the roster were right field and third base.

The addressed the concern in right field by trading away Drew Stubbs and signing David Murphy. Even with Chisenhall set to return, they were open-minded enough to consider not only playing Santana at third base this season, but bumping Chisenhall out of the position completely.

The way things set up, it looks like Santana came into spring training with a leg up in the competition. The Indians have said all the right things publicly that both are on equal footing, but if the Indians were that confident in Chisenhall being the guy, they probably would never have attempted the Santana third base experiment to begin with this winter. Whether it was his request or their desire to find a solution at third base, what started as an experiment during the Dominican Winter League in early December quickly turned into a realistic possibility just a few weeks into his play there.

That set the ball in motion where suddenly Santana was not just viewed as a multi-dimensional cleanup hitter who could maybe play a little third base and also play first base and catcher, but that he may truly be able to settle in permanently at third base.

The reports on Santana’s play at third base were very positive in the Dominican Winter League. Before anyone laughs it off that winter ball is not nearly the same level of play as Major League Baseball, note that he played third base during the playoffs which is a much greater intense environment than Major League spring training and even regular season games.

Simply put, all Santana has to do is carry that over to spring training these next few weeks and convince Francona and the rest of the Indians brass that he can handle the job. If he does that, then Chisenhall will likely pack his bags and go to Triple-A Columbus to play every day and be a fallback option in the event Santana gets hurt or proves during the first few months of the season that he can’t play there every day.

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But that’s the thing. He won’t be able to really prove that this spring. The Indians will need to take a leap of faith on him based on how he looks this spring and their comfort level with him there in order to put him to the test for real when things get cranked up in the regular season and the grind of the season kicks in.

It appears unlikely the Indians would tab Santana the everyday third baseman and keep Chisenhall on the roster as a designated hitter. He’s still too valuable to pigeon-hole into such a role, and they have other options that they can use to piece meal the designated hitter spot. It would be unfortunate for him to have to go back to Columbus again, but he can use the time to hopefully refine his approach once and for all against left-handed pitching and show more consistency with his defense.

Ultimately, this is a very important decision the Indians have to make because a decision on Santana as the third baseman also affects Chisenhall’s future with the club. This is a decision which not only has an effect on the now, but the long term as well, as naming Santana the third baseman could conceivably make him their third baseman for the next four seasons until he becomes a free agent after the 2017 season. It would be a commitment to him for the long haul.

It would also signal the beginning of the door closing on Chisenhall’s once promising career in Cleveland. Aside from an injury to Santana, his only chance at a future in Cleveland would be to add a few more positions like first base and the outfield to his resume to create some versatility. More interestingly, he would suddenly become a player that the Indians could use as a trade chip at some point this season.

When you really break it all down, you really see how much of an impact this decision will have on the team. Not just who is manning the hot corner, but the career paths for two former high-profile prospects in the organization and also how so many others players on the roster bubble fit into the Opening Day puzzle.

But as complex as it all seems, this is not a decision that will be based on numbers or their performance at the plate this spring. It all comes down to one thing, and that is whether Santana can or cannot be the everyday guy at third. Everything else – including what Chisenhall does – is secondary.