Santana third base experiment might be just that

The gears are already turning.

Shortly after word got out a little over a week ago that Indians catcher and first baseman Carlos Santana would get some work in at third base in winter ball this offseason, it raised some eyebrows from fans about what exactly the plan is at third base for the Indians in 2014.

For now, Santana is going to get some work in at third base for his Dominican Winter League team Leones del Escogido. He is already out at the Indians academy in the Dominican Republic working out at third base taking groundballs and learning the position so that he is best prepared for the experiment later this month in real games.

“The Indians have told me they want me to play third base next season,” Santana recently said on the Dominican television program This Week in Sports.  “I will play winter ball with the Escogido Leones and I will start learning the position. … I’m training, which is most important. No date is yet set to play, but I have permission to play winter ball.”

Now before anyone gets ahead of themselves, if the Indians even go forward with the Santana experiment at third base in spring training it should only be on a very part-time basis and he is not viewed — at the moment — as a potential everyday solution at third base.

Things can always change and I guess if Miguel Cabrera can play third base then anyone can, but this is but a trial to see if the Indians can get Santana into maybe 15-30 games at third base next year. The Indians have entrenched starters Nick Swisher at first base and Yan Gomes at catcher, and while Santana may see the bulk of his time at designated hitter next season he could see a great deal of time in the field between catcher, first base, and potentially third base.

But finding out if Santana is an option at third base is something worth pursuing.

First off, incumbent third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has been very inconsistent both offensively and defensively in his three years in the big leagues. Secondly, Chisenhall has struggled greatly against left-handed pitching in his career (career .194 AVG and .612 OPS) so it would be wise to find another option to use there as a platoon option.

Santana is a career .285 hitter with an .855 OPS against lefties, so if he can handle third base on a part-time basis he would be a decided upgrade there when a left-hander is on the hill. The Indians can then mix and match the designated hitter and add even more thump to the lineup.

Digging a little deeper into this decision, and merely speculating, perhaps the Indians are not considering Mike Aviles as a regular platoon option at third base with Chisenhall because he might become the everyday shortstop option after starting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is traded this offseason.  But without overthinking it, this is probably just simply an experiment to create more versatility for the ball club.

There is no doubt that Santana has the arm for the position, but the biggest question mark will be his lateral movement and his ability to come in on groundballs and be athletic enough for the position.  It was a position he originally played in the minors, but he struggled and eventually moved to catcher to take advantage of his strong arm and bat.

It is important to not put too much stock into Santana’s 58 career games at third base in the minors. That was extremely early in his career and the Dodgers moved him around the diamond the first two years in order to get his bat in the lineup so they could develop other higher priority prospects at similar positions that Santana played. In addition to playing third base in the minors, he also logged 66 games in the outfield, three games at second base and two games at first base.

The Dodgers always viewed Santana as a conversion candidate because of that strong arm and athleticism, so they moved him behind the plate permanently in 2007 and it is there he stayed for the next several years until the Indians started using him some at first base in recent seasons to give him a break from behind the plate and keep his potent bat in the lineup.

Where things go from here really depends on what the Indians take away from Santana’s showing in a handful of games in the Dominican. But these kinds of experiments in the offseason are quite the norm as the Indians experimented with Jason Donald in the outfield during Instructional League in 2011 and have toyed with positional changes to others in the past only to scrap the idea or use the player at the new position on a very limited basis the next season.

Like with the recent David Murphy signing, the experiment of Santana at third base is just another attempt to give the Indians options and create more positional depth. It should not be viewed as a permanent position change and the expectations should be low that he will even be able to handle it.

Most of all, it shows the Indians are leaving no stone unturned and that they are being creative and considering all potential solutions for upgrading the lineup next season.