GOODYEAR, Ariz. — According to manager Terry Francona, this is how it went down with Carlos Santana and the switch to third base:
“This was his idea. He came to us at the end of the year because he did not want to be a full-time DH, which we understand. We told him, ‘For this conversation to be positive, it has to be totally honest.’ We told him, ‘(Yan) Gomes is going to be the catcher next year.’ We told him, ‘Go think about how you feel about things.’
“A couple weeks later he was like, ‘I want to try to play third.’ We told him, ‘OK, you can try to play third, but that doesn’t mean you’re the third baseman.’”
Francona and the Indians may not have named Santana the starter at third, but that’s how he’s viewing the situation. Beginning with an extended stint at third base in the Dominican Winter League, Santana, who turns 28 on April 8, has been putting in the extra time and effort to hone his new craft.
“He’s worked his (butt) off,” Francona said.
Santana’s desire to improve at a position he hasn’t played since he began his professional career with the Los Angeles Dodgers was evident Thursday in Cleveland’s 1-0 win over the Cubs at Goodyear Ballpark.
Santana was scheduled to play five innings at third base, but wound up playing seven instead — by request.
“Tito, he wanted to give me five innings,” Santana said. “I said, ‘No, give me one more, one more.’ I don’t feel a thing (physically). I feel so great. I feel comfortable. I’m working hard every day.”
Barring a complete failure from Santana, defensively, it would be difficult to imagine him not opening the regular season as the starter at third. He’s a proven offensive producer on the big league level, and his main competition, Lonnie Chisenhall, still owns a minor league option.
Still, maybe not all that surprising, Santana has looked relatively rough at third to begin the exhibition season.
He had a throwing error and failed to come up with a relay in his debut at the position. Thursday, he dropped a hard line drive, but recovered in time to make the fielder’s choice throw to second base. He also made a charging bare-handed play on a grounder but didn’t have time to make the throw.
Francona said it will be difficult to gauge Santana’s progress simply from watching him in exhibition games.
“The hard thing about games is unless they hit seven or eight balls (at somebody), you kind of go off his work from the day,” he said. “And that part, he’s done great.”
The Indians accepted Santana’s shortcomings at catcher — most glaring, his difficulty blocking balls — due to his offensive ability. Since becoming a full-time starter behind the plate in 2011, Santana has averaged more than 20 home runs and 70 RBIs per season, while ranking among the American League leaders in walks.
But with the emergence of Gomes, both behind the plate and at it, Cleveland can move another offensive weapon into the lineup should Santana succeed at third. Plus, the four-year veteran can extend his career without the rigors of catching, though Francona said that was not why the Santana experiment is underway.
“I guess I fall in on both sides of that argument,” Francona said. “I think you have to do what’s best for your team. Every single person is going to have less wear and tear that doesn’t catch. Saying that, if you have a guy that is an offensive catcher, look what that does for your team. There’s two sides to the argument.”
Santana (.182 with an RBI in four exhibition games) is expected to mix in some catching work at some point this spring. But when the Indians open the regular season, Francona wants to see a close to polished third baseman — whether it’s Santana or not.
“The only fair way to do it is to evaluate him as a third baseman,” Francona said. “Because our goal is to have the best third baseman, not the best converted guy that’s a third baseman. Now, you have to remember that he was a catcher and he hasn’t played third very much. But when the season starts, that’s history.”