One of the biggest weaknesses for the Indians in the 2013 season was the lack of offense from the men they sent out to play third base. Manned by the now-departed Mark Reynolds and John McDonald in addition to Lonnie Chisenhall and Mike Aviles, the batting average of Indians third basemen was an anemic .218, and the on-base percentage was a mere .244, both stats being the worst in the American League.
Aviles is certain to make the 25-man roster next spring, and Chisenhall is almost certain to do so. Right now there are no young phenoms in AA or AAA ready to step up to compete for the starting job at third, and signing a free agent or trading for a third baseman seem improbable moves for the front office to make.
Given these realities, the Indians are willing to consider giving an unlikely player the chance to see some action at third base next season: Carlos Santana. Having lost his job as everyday catcher thanks to the excellent play of Yan Gomes, Santana was used mostly as a first baseman and DH in the last half of 2013. But the Indians are going to see if Santana, who played a few dozen games at third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system in 2006, can do a credible job handling the hot corner at the big league level. To find out, Santana has volunteered to play the position in the Dominican Republic winter league. He will be accompanied by Indians infield instructor Mike Sarbaugh, who will help Santana with the mechanics of the position, and who can be relied upon to provide the Indians front office with an honest accounting of Santana’s performance at third.
If he does a credible job in winter ball, Indians manager Terry Francona will likely give Santana some playing time at third during spring training in 2014. A man who can catch, play first base, and do a good job at DH is a valuable asset to any team. But as Francona told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, “the more positions he can play, it just allows us to get more bats into the lineup. He’s open to it, so we’re willing to be open also.”
I’m skeptical about Santana’s ability to field the position, but I see no downside in giving him a shot at it, especially with using the winter league time for the experiment. If it doesn’t pan out, Santana will still see action in 140 games next year rotating between first base, catcher, and DH. Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong, and to see him play a little third base, and play it well, for the Indians in 2014. Santana’s bat is too valuable to keep out of the lineup for very long. And who knows, maybe realizing that he’s expendable thanks to Santana’s flexibility will light a fire under Lonnie Chisenhall, who really needs to step up in 2014. His OPS+ mark of 88 in 2013 was a severe disappointment. Chisenhall is eligible for arbitration in 2015. If he turns in another lackluster performance next year, it’s unlikely that the Indians will bother trying to sign him again for 2015.