- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Carlos Santana's spirit is certainly willing. In his attempt to become a serviceable big league third baseman, he has done everything but change his first name to Cletis and read "Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography" from cover to cover.
During the offseason, Santana played third base back home in the Dominican winter league and received lots of pointers from countryman and former big leaguer Fernando Tatis. He has spent hours on the back fields this spring embracing the nuances of third-base play with the help of Cleveland Indians coach Mike Sarbaugh. And when asked whether he has a hot corner role model, he quickly mentions Adrian Beltre, so he clearly has been paying attention.
The only thing Santana lacks right now is time for a learning curve. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the Indians brass will have a better idea whether his shift from catcher to third base was an inspired idea, a noble experiment gone awry or something in the middle. At the moment, the team is keeping its options open and hoping for the best while preparing for every possible scenario. Stay ready, Lonnie Chisenhall.
"Early in camp, you have to remember that he was a catcher and he hasn't played third very much," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "But when the season starts, that's history."
Santana, 27, has been a focal point of Cleveland's lineup since becoming an every-day player three years ago. Since 2011, he ranks first among major league catchers in runs scored (231) and walks (281). He's second to Baltimore's Matt Wieters in homers (65) and RBIs (229), second to St. Louis' Yadier Molina in hits (405) and doubles (101), and fifth overall in OPS at .808.
But the development of Yan Gomes, the first native Brazilian to play in the majors, has changed the equation at Progressive Field. After Gomes hit .294 with an .826 OPS and a 4.0 WAR and threw out 41 percent of would-be base stealers last season, the Indians decided he had earned the right to play 120 to 130 games behind the plate. That meant Santana was destined to be the designated hitter, a scenario that didn't appeal to him, so the two sides had a heart-to-heart late in the season.
The Indians were candid with Santana about where things stood, and rather than pout, Santana proposed the idea of a move to third base. The time and effort he has invested in the transition has earned him a wave of respect and admiration in the Cleveland clubhouse.
“It says a lot about him," Gomes said. "When I started catching more last year, our relationship didn't change. It didn't make it awkward between us or anything. He's a team-first guy. Anywhere he plays, he's going to be a huge part of this team."
Santana is not a complete novice at third base. He played 58 games at the position in the low minors with the Los Angeles Dodgers before moving behind the plate in the Class A Midwest League in 2007. He advanced through the minors and got a chance to blossom when the Indians acquired him in a July 2008 trade for Casey Blake.
In Goodyear, Santana compensates for his lack of experience at third with diligence and punctuality. When the schedule permits, he'll hit the back fields with Sarbaugh at 8:20 a.m. for a 25-minute tutorial on the art of third-base play.
Santana begins on his knees, working on reactions and glove positioning while Sarbaugh hits him grounders from a distance of 30 to 40 feet. Then the coach rolls him a series of balls, and he concentrates on footwork. Santana focuses on staying through his throws while Sarbaugh hits him fungoes, practices fielding balls backhanded, and sees a wide range of worm burners, choppers and balls hit with topspin to conclude the day's festivities. The Indians were barely three weeks into spring training, and player and coach had been through the routine 15 times.
"He's very motivated, and that's half the battle right there," Sarbaugh said. "I expect him to make some mistakes, but he'll learn from those mistakes."
The problem is, no amount of solitary work on a back field can match the challenge of doing things at game speed, and Santana has had some hiccups in Arizona. Ominously, he made an error on the first ball hit to him in the Cactus League. In a recent game against the Cubs, he dropped a line drive before making an awkward, cringe-inducing lollipop throw to second base for a force play. One scout in Arizona said reviews on Santana's ability to play third have been "mixed."
Third base presents some unique challenges because of the wide range of skills required. A third baseman might go an entire game without fielding a ball, then encounter a slow roller that requires him to charge hard, grab the ball barehanded and throw across his body while airborne. The play after that, he might get a bad-hop laser that puts his dental work at risk.
Santana also needs to shed some of his old catching habits. Catchers are accustomed to springing from a crouch and firing the ball to second or third base in an attempt to cut down aspiring base stealers. Third basemen, in contrast, need to stay low to the ground and generate forward momentum when they throw. Much of the transition involves being mentally and physically engaged before the pitcher even delivers the ball to home plate.
"The big thing is his pre-pitch setup, how to be ready as that ball is crossing the hitting zone," Sarbaugh said. "We're really emphasizing that. That ball is gonna come at you pretty quick at the corners. We talk about the initial steps, going to his left and right, and the footwork and how to approach a ground ball. Then it's about getting in a good, square position and finishing the play. We're trying to keep it simple and not give him too much information."
Some players never warm to the position, no matter how glitzy their résumés. The Boston Red Sox tried Carl Yastrzemski at third base in 1973, and he made 12 errors in a month. Ryan Braun insists he could be a capable big league shortstop if given time to prepare but concedes he has no desire to play another inning at third. The list of players who found they simply weren't meant to play the corner ranges from Derek Bell to Butch Huskey to Mark Trumbo to Chase Utley.
No fear factor
In one respect, Santana's experience behind the plate helps ease his transition. Some players have a hard time adapting to third base because of the natural human inclination for self-preservation. But if anyone is going to roll with the possibility of taking a ball off the chops, it's a catcher.
"I think you take that fear away after being behind the plate," said Indians DH Jason Giambi, who broke into pro ball as a third baseman with Oakland in 1992. "He's probably thinking, 'Thank God I don't have to block balls in the dirt anymore.'"
If Santana has any misgivings about his decision a month into camp, he's not interested in sharing them for public consumption.
"It's a big transition from behind the plate to third base, but I'm preparing," he said. "It's not hard for me right now. Maybe later. You never know."
When Joe Mauer switched to first base because of his concussion problems, he put away his catcher's mitt for good. Santana's transition will not be so abrupt. If the Indians determine he's not an every-day third baseman, they'll cobble together 600-plus plate appearances for him at third base, catcher and DH. Santana has averaged 151 games per season since 2011, and the Tribe will find a way to get his bat in the lineup somehow.
Regardless of how things shake out, Santana isn't the only player affected. His status is sure to have an effect on Chisenhall, a third-base prospect who is still trying to fulfill the expectations he carried as a first-round pick in 2008. Chisenhall has 23 homers and 74 RBIs in 643 big-league at-bats -- and a .194 batting average and .225 on-base percentage against left-handed pitching.
So how will things play out over the next two to three weeks?
"The only fair way to do it is to evaluate Carlos as a third baseman," Francona said, "because our goal is to have the best third baseman, not the best converted guy who's a third baseman. What's our best ballclub? How do we get situated the best where we can win the most games?"
The storyline isn't quite up there with LeBron James' "Decision" as a seminal event in Cleveland sports history, but Santana's path could have significant ramifications for an Indians franchise with playoff aspirations. The closer Opening Day comes into view, the higher the stakes get.