GOODYEAR, Ariz: The puzzle pieces have been there for a while, but they’ve never been put together.
Indians manager Terry Francona said on Tuesday that he hasn’t put much thought into the lineup, whether it be for Opening Day or when Michael Brantley returns. But one idea that has crossed his mind is utilizing Carlos Santana’s ability to get on base and putting him in the leadoff spot.
Francona stressed that it’s just a thought right now, but it’s something that makes sense given Santana’s career .365 on-base percentage. Santana is also one of only four qualified hitters to post an OBP higher than .350 in each of the past five seasons. Those attributes traditionally warrant more value near the top of the batting order.
“The one thing I’ve thought about is maybe Santana leading off,” Francona said. “It’s only a thought. Because of his skill set, I think he’d be maybe one of the better leadoff hitters in the game. I know it seems a little unique, maybe out of the box, and you’ve got to have somebody hit cleanup. Again, I don’t know if I’d do it or not. But it’s something I’ve thought about.”
The Indians have tried to take advantage of Santana’s skill set before and put him in the No. 2 spot for 30 games last season. But Santana didn’t feel comfortable there and hit just .196 with a .336 OBP.
“The problem was he didn’t like it,” Francona said. “I know you can’t let your nine guys dictate where they hit but if they’re hitting in a spot where it’s affecting them in a negative way, and I have the ability to change it, I’d be kind of silly not to.”
Whether Santana would feel comfortable in the leadoff spot is unknown without a few games there, though the Indians could experiment with it this spring.
Francona has made a move like this before, when as manager of the Boston Red Sox he inserted first baseman Kevin Youkilis, another high-OBP hitter, into the leadoff spot for 95 games. So there is a precedent.
Of course, taking Santana out of his current No. 4 or No. 5 spot in the lineup weakens the middle of the order, something that might be an issue, especially with Brantley expected to miss roughly the first month of the season.
Traditionally, Santana has been at his best with men on base in front of him. But when Brantley is healthy, Santana as the leadoff hitter would allow, perhaps, Jason Kipnis to slide back to No. 3 and Brantley into hitting cleanup, even if it’s a little odd to have a primary designated hitter/first baseman hitting first.
At this time, the Indians are only kicking around the idea. It might not look natural, but a leadoff hitter being the guy who gets on base the most isn’t anything new.
The Indians held the annual endurance test for position players on Tuesday, and an underdog took down the defending champion.
Francisco Lindor, who won it last year prior to his rookie season, and Jeremy Lucas, a minor-league catcher, were the last two competitors for several rounds. Finally, Lucas outlasted Lindor to win it.
“That was unbelievable,” Francona said of Lucas’ victory, which no one saw coming. “That was really something. Plus, he caught [a bullpen session] this morning. That was pretty amazing.”
Several veterans were among the last players left in the endurance test, which requires players to run a certain distance in a certain time for as long as they can.
Once they fail to reach the mark twice, they’re out of the test. Among those veterans in the group of finalists were Kipnis and Brantley.
“When you see Brantley and Kip, they don’t have to keep doing that. They’re going to play,” Francona said. “But it makes you feel good when you see those guys doing those things because you tell the younger guys to follow the veterans and watch their routines and see how hard they work. When they do it like that, it sure makes it easier for me and the coaches.”
Cody Anderson won the endurance test for the pitchers a few days ago.
Francona isn’t big on meetings. That is, except for the first one.
Francona holds that initial meeting, and the speech he gives early in the spring, in high regard. As players report and the entire team gets into camp, Francona gets them together and shares his thoughts on the game and the upcoming season. He wants it to set the tone, remind the veterans of what needs to be done and let those who are new to the club understand what the Indians want to be about as a team.
The Indians held their first full-squad workout on Tuesday, so the time had come.
“I do, I admit, I care about the meeting a lot because I think it sets the tone for what we’re supposed to do,” Francona said Tuesday. “I’ve been doing it for a long time but I still get anxiety over it and until it’s over, it’s a responsibility that I take really serious. And I’ve told the guys, to be able to stand up in front of them is an honor and I want to take it and treat it as that.”
What’s in the meeting is largely kept in the room, except to say it’s about what kind of team the Indians want to be. In terms of the 2016 season, that really kicked off Tuesday.
“It’s fun to get together as a whole team because that’s the day that marks the beginning of all of us together, trying to see if we can do something that’s really difficult,” Francona said. “And all 30 teams are doing the same thing.”