GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds have made life easier for Carlos Santana.
No, they don’t go to the car wash for him or carry his bats to the practice fields. What they do is distract attention from the 26-year-old catcher, who was touted as the Indians’ next big thing the moment he stepped on a major-league diamond for the first time in 2010.
Since then, the fans have discovered that it isn’t that easy. Few players become stars immediately upon taking that final step from Triple-A to the big leagues.
Santana hasn’t been nonproductive the past three seasons, but he hasn’t lived up to everyone’s high expectations, including those of the Tribe’s deep thinkers who did nothing to temper the runaway hopes of the fan base and the media.
Last year, Santana batted .252 with 18 home runs, 72 runs, 76 RBI and 91 walks.
Former manager Manny Acta tried to address Santana’s shortcomings at the plate by changing his swing. Santana (a switch hitter) does not have the prototype approach at the plate. He lifts the heel of his front foot just before the pitch is delivered, then he raises his front leg as a timing device, just after the pitch is unleashed.
Acta and his coaching staff felt that this kind of swing threw off Santana’s timing. Maybe so, but Santana couldn’t seem to keep his foot still while he waited for the pitch.
New manager Terry Francona has decided to let Santana determine his own stance and swing.
“As long as he’s consistent,” Francona said. “And I know his second half was way more productive. Carlos does a lot of things you really have to like. He takes his walks, he swings at strikes and he is not a wild swinger.”
Francona reminded his audience of reporters on Thursday that catching is the primary job of a catcher, even a catcher who is expected to contribute in a major way to the attack. He also mentioned that Santana has carried an extra offensive burden for most of his time with the Indians.
“I don’t know where Carlos will hit in the batting order, but he doesn’t have to hit cleanup,” Francona said. “[It doesn’t have to be] catch first, run the staff and by the way, hit cleanup. That just sends a mixed message.”
One of the Indians’ new additions, Swisher or maybe Reynolds, could end up as the No. 4 batter in Francona’s lineup, though the manager did not specifically say that Santana would not bat in the cleanup spot.
Santana’s best tool as a catcher is his strong arm, though he did not have an exceptional season throwing out runners last year (25-of-95 for 26 percent). Then again, that figure is more than adequate given the failure of some Tribe pitchers to hold runners to their bases.
The mechanics of catching is something all catchers work on continuously. Bench coach/catching coach Sandy Alomar has a different project for Santana: improving his English language skills. Alomar says that at times, Santana will pretend he understands but really doesn’t.
Francona points out that a catcher’s job is multifaceted and that cutting some slack for Santana might be a good idea.
“It’s not just being a young catcher,” Francona said. “Catching is a very different job. You ask more from your catcher than anyone else. A catcher is going to lose some at-bats [give some away]. The good ones do, because they’re spending time with the starting pitcher or a reliever and all of a sudden their at-bat comes up.
“That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the catcher has to coax a pitcher through a game.”
In other words, no matter how valuable a catcher might be at the plate, his first obligation is to his pitcher, and if his in-game preparation and concentration as a hitter suffers, so be it.
Is there a way to compartmentalize the two parts of a catcher’s game, so he can rationally deal with both without one or the other getting short-changed?
“With a young catcher it doesn’t just happen,” Francona said. “We have to help him. And everything we’ve asked Carlos to do, he’s done with a smile.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.