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Indians just feel better with Carlos Santana at first base

Santana, Santana & Sons should form a smooth combination at first base and designated hitter for the Indians

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.

Carlos Santana is pretty good, right? We can all agree on that?

If there’s one thing that should be undebatable at this point in Santana’s career, it’s that he has settled into a groove somewhere between very good and really very quite good. Outside of a bizarre year where he was zapped from this plane of existence into nothingness for a full calendar year, Santana has been a player who can be counted for at least two wins every season.

In his return to Cleveland last year, Santana peaked with a 4.4 fWAR, a .281/.397/.515 slash, a career-high 34 home runs and his usual high walk rate at 15.7%. The promising glove he once flashed is seemingly gone, but he works well enough and now that he’s good for 20+ home runs a season he’s about as quality as you can get at the position.

Whether it was a comfort factor or something else, Santana absolutely clubbed the ball in 2019, likely harder than he ever has. His exit velocity ranked among the best 7% in baseball and his hard-hit rate wasn’t far behind. He barreled the ball 9.6% of the time, which is his second-highest rate since Statcast started tracking barrels in 2015.

Looking ahead to 2020, he’ll be technically entering his age-33 season, but turning the big 3-4 shortly after Opening Day. Only ZiPS sees him slowing down at all, with a projected 2.5 fWAR and a 112 wRC+. Both Steamer and PECOTA still love his offense and have him pegged for at least 27 home runs apiece. All three projection systems have him snapping his streak of consecutive 100-walk seasons — something he’s done in 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019. Of course, it’s only by a walk or two so there’s enough wiggle room that you could say it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do it again.

If Santana can manage 100 walks again, he would join Indians great Jim Thome as the only other player in club history to have 100 walks in five or more seasons. Thome, of course, did it six out of seven times from 1996 to 2002 (his injury-shortened ‘98 season as the only exception).

Santana enters 2020 in the final guaranteed year of a three-year, $60 million contract he signed with the Phillies in 2018, and he could return to the Indians in 2021 if the club picks up his $17.5 million option. For the Indians, that might seem like a steep price for a first baseman who will turn 35 soon after the season starts, but a lot of it will have to do with how Bobby Bradley develops and how other first potential first base/designated hitters Jake Bauers, Franmil Reyes, and Domingo Santana grow in 2020.

For the purposes of our season preview series, most Franmil Reyes discussion will come later when we preview outfielders. But as he pertains to the potential 1B/DH slot: he would make a fantastic designated hitter if the Indians didn’t already have so many of them and so few good outfielders.

Cleveland’s other Santana, who goes by Domingo, looks set to be the designated hitter of note for the Indians in 2020. Technically he is an outfielder, and probably owns a glove, but if Santana is anywhere but designated hitter for the majority of the year the Indians’ canary is officially dead.

Among qualified outfielders in 2019 Santana was the worst in terms of Statcast’s outs above average, and he was the second overall worst defender in baseball by the same metric. Other measurements paint a similarly grizzly image. He cost the Mariners 17 runs according to defensive runs saved in 2019 alone and in his career he’s cost teams 31 runs in 3513.1 innings of work in the outfield. His defense went from mediocre bad with the Brewers in previous seasons to apocalyptic with the Mariners last year. So maybe he just hated getting sweaty in the Seattle humidity or didn’t appreciate their uniforms? But either way, he should be a DH in Cleveland, baseball gods willing.

And for what it’s worth, all projection systems see him as at least above a league-average bat in 2020, which is about what you’d expect from a $1.5 million flyer on a guy that was non-tendered by his previous team. Steamer is a shade more optimistic than ZiPS and PECOTA, putting him at 23 home runs and a .243/.329/.445 slash. If they can get that kind of production out of him that’s plenty, but if he can replicate something similar to his 127 wRC+ 2017 campaign, the Indians will have another free agent steal bust to put next to Austin Jackson in the veteran scooping Hall of Fame.

Make no mistake — there is no competition for first base in spring training. But regardless, the Indians will have options at designated hitter depending on how well Domingo Santana hangs on. Jake Bauers, for one, is out there if he can’t get a spot in the outfield and the Indians believe in his newfound positive attitude. His remaining minor league option makes him a candidate to start the season in Triple-A, though.

The Indians also have also invited Gavin Collins to camp. However, he’s more of a catcher and hasn’t played above High-A as a 24-year-old. He’s likely not much more than camp fodder at this point.

Prospect Outlook

Beyond Bobby Bradley, the Indians don’t feature much depth at the first base position in the minor leagues, with no other first base prospects cracking the LGT top 20.

Bradley led the International League in home runs in 2019 with a career-high 33 bombs, plus a prodigious blast with the Indians for his first MLB home run. That power comes with a caveat, however, as Bradley also struck out in 40.8% of at-bats while walking in a career-low 8.2% of at-bats during his first MLB stint. He’ll definitely need to improve those numbers if he wants to be a serious contributor at the MLB level.

While there aren’t many other noteworthy 1B/DH prospects at the upper levels, Indians 2018 minor league Rule 5 selection Wilson Garcia slashed .268/.310/.475 with a 127 wRC+ as a 26-year-old in his first taste of Double-A last season and has never struck out higher than 12.6% of his at-bats in a season. Low-A Mahoning Valley first baseman Michael Cooper is still just 20 years old and has shown signs of potential especially if he fills out his frame, but has yet to post a wRC+ over 98 in a season. Single-A Lake County’s Ulysses Cantu missed most of 2019 with injury and still hasn’t shown the offensive potential he flashed when the Indians made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2016.

Besides Bradley, the most promising 1B/DH prospects played at the rookie-level in 2019. Jhonkensy Noel blasted 10 home runs in the Dominican Summer League when he was barely 17-year-old in 2018 and followed that season up by slashing .287/.349/.455 with a 114 wRC+ in his stateside debut this past season. He doesn’t turn 19 until July. The Indians also spent a third-round pick in the 2019 MLB draft on first base prospect Joe Naranjo, who slashed .266/.345/.333, which was one of the better hitting performances by Indians 2019 draft picks (which isn’t saying much).

— Brian Hemminger

Around the AL Central

Old friend Edwin Encarnación has joined the battle for the Chicago White Sox. You could argue that, seeing as he is entering his age-37 season, there might be some drop-off for the big right-hander. You would probably be wrong. Edwin has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, even well past when many MLB players ride off into the sunset. He’s had a wRC+ of 100 or more in all but two seasons over an illustrious 15-year career. At this point, I’d almost bet on him doing it for another 15.

José Abreu also is known to roam Guaranteed Rate Field’s first base and will also likely continue to be a nightmare for Indians pitchers until the day he retires. Abreu has tailed off in recent years — that is to say, he went from being a potential superstar to just being a very-good 117 wRC+, 30 home run hitter in 2019.

The Royals are projected to feature Jorge Soler as their DH, who looks like he’s coming into his prime nicely. Last season, his first with regular playing time, he played a part in every game and in 679 plate appearances slashed .265/.354/.569 with 48 home runs. He played a handful of innings in the outfield but was Kansas City’s DH the majority of the time. Ryan O’Hearn will serve as the Royals’ first baseman and is a lefty with a low of power potential that hasn’t quite put it together yet over a full season’s worth of at-bats.

Miguel Cabrera will surely torment the Indians again in 2020, even though he’ll be turning 37 shortly after Opening Day. After missing most of 2018 he wasn’t great in 2019 with just a .282/.346/.398 slash. His 96 wRC+ was the second-lowest of his career, bested only by the 92 wRC+ he had in 2017. Needless to say, the albatross years of the massive extension he signed with the Tigers in 2014 are here. The Tigers also signed C.J. Cron in the offseason, is coming off a 25-homer season with the Twins and is projected to top that number by all ZiPS, Steamer, and PECOTA.

And finally, that brings us to the Twins. Nelson Cruz will be their primary DH once again in 2020 as he continues to defy aging through the use of steroids deep breathing exercises or something. At 39 years old he had one of his best offensive seasons ever for the thumping Twins in 2019, putting up 41 home runs, a .311/.392/.639 slash and a double-digit walk rate for just the third time in his career. Projection systems have stopped trying to assume he is going to age like a normal functioning human and still have him pegged for 35-or-more home runs and an offensive output that’s 30% or more above average.

With Josh Donaldson in the fold at third base, Miguel Sanó will be bumped to first base after five seasons of underwhelming defense at third. He, too, hit a ton of home runs last year and is projected to do the same in 2020.


What grade would you give the Indians at 1B/DH?

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