Nine years ago, the Cleveland Indians made a trade that was universally praised at the time. They dealt Casey Blake to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two prospects, one of which was a switch-hitting catcher that was putting up minor-league offensive numbers reminiscent of Victor Martinez. Carlos Santana was going to be to the 2011-2017 Indians what Victor was to the 2004-2008 Indians; a middle-of the-order hitter who also happened to play a premium defensive position.
That vision didn’t exactly work out as intended, but that doesn’t mean Santana’s tenure with the Indians was a disappointment. Far from it. The weight of expectations was applied too heavily to him, especially considering that what he turned into to be was still a fantastic player. He started as a catcher, but was moved to third base briefly before settling in as a 1B/DH. All through these position changes, he’s been pretty much the same type of hitter, even making subtle improvements over the years.
He is a pull-side hitter, but also a patient one. He’s gone against the league trend by reducing his strikeouts over the last couple seasons while maintaining his walk rate. The recent emphasis on defensive shifts has hurt him, but even so he’s maintained his production. Had he played in the 70s or 80s, I think he’d be considered an even better player because he’d get more hits. In fact, a lot of his similar players through his current age on baseball-reference played in that period (Graig Nettles, Darrell Evans, Ron Cey, Bill Melton).
Santana’s most positive traits are those that only are revealed over the long term - consistency both with offensive production and with just showing up every day. Seeing a lot of pitches per plate appearance is something that can be as helpful to a team’s chances of winning as anything else, and because Santana shows up to play every day, that cumulative effect is massive. The only meaningful amount of time he’s missed came when he sprained a ligament in his knee after a collision at home plate early in his career.
Quantity has a quality all its own, as can be seen by his appearance on many franchise career lists. He’s collected more doubles than Victor Martinez, more home runs than Joe Carter, more plate appearances than Travis Hafner, more walks than Earl Averill, and more runs created than Grady Sizemore.
Santana is no longer a player who only provides value with his bat. He actually took a step back at the plate vs 2016 (more on that later) but was a more valuable player because of the vast improvements he’s made at first base. I think he’s the best in the AL at making throws to other bases, and is one of the better first basemen at ranging to his right. He’s a Gold Glove finalist, and deservedly so. He’s also played some outfield in a pinch, which might make even more enticing to a National League club. He’s also a surprisingly good base runner, knowing when to take an extra base or even steal a base when pitchers aren’t paying attention.
A player at any one time is almost never his season averages. What do I mean by this? Players can go through cold streaks and hot streaks throughout the season, and Santana’s 2017 was very much like this. He started the season very cold (.749 in the first half), but turned it on in the second half (.906) and was one of the key contributors to the Indians’ 22-game winning streak in August and September. He played in both games of the three doubleheaders the Indians players in August/September, even playing a couple games in the outfield so that he could stay in the lineup.
There is a good possibility that we’ve seen the last of Carlos Santana in a Cleveland Indians uniform. This is Santana’s big chance to get a substantial multi-year contract, and unless the first base free agent market completely tanks, he’s going to get one. He is heading into his Age 32 season, so he’s not going to get the length of contract that fellow free agent Eric Hosmer (who is 4 years younger) is going to get, but I think he’ll get more per year than the qualifying offer ($17.4M) the Indians will almost certainly offer him. Some teams might actually prefer Santana to Hosmer, as he’s shown himself to be a more complete player over the last couple years.
If Santana leaves, then the Indians won’t be able to replace Santana with just one player. Michael Brantley is coming back, and perhaps will spend some time as the DH, but that opens up holes in a outfield that wasn’t very deep to begin with. That’s why I think the Indians will make a serious bid to keep Santana, but I’m pessimistic that they’ll be able to retain him. The new qualifying offer rules shouldn’t discourage teams as much from signing Santana even with a qualifying offe attached to him, and there are several big market teams that are going to be in the market for a first baseman.
If this is it, farewell Lando; and may your many future visits to Cloud City come against teams that aren’t the Indians.