CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Manny Acta saw enough of Carlos Santana last season to know that the young catcher has the ability to become a star in the Majors. Asked to describe Santana as a hitter, Acta offers a smile before responding.
"He's a special kid," Acta said.
A kid who is expected to be in the heart of the lineup come Opening Day. Santana's season ended abruptly at Boston's Fenway Park in August, when a collision with Ryan Kalish at home plate resulted in a serious left knee injury. The catcher spent the offseason rehabbing the injury and has progressed as planned.
That is great news for the Indians, who saw the kind of impact Santana can have on a lineup when he was promoted to the big leagues last June. As Acta's description of the catcher suggests, Cleveland believes it has something special in Santana.
What gives Acta the same hope?
"His confidence," Acta said. "It started in Spring Training. He kept coming to me and saying, 'Hey, you haven't seen anything.'"
The Tribe received a glimpse of Santana's potential after he was summoned to The Show on June 11. The catcher -- acquired from the Dodgers in the July 2008 trade that sent Casey Blake to the West Coast -- had nothing left to prove in the Minors. With Triple-A Columbus, all he did was hit .316 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs in 57 games.
Santana, 24, did not slow down once he was fitted for his Indians uniform, either. In his first 18 games for Cleveland, Santana hit at a .345 clip with four home runs, 15 RBIs and a 1.165 OPS. He did the bulk of his damage while hitting in the third or fourth spot within the Indians' lineup, too.
"As soon as we called him up," Acta said, "once he got the defensive part of his game going and he came up, he was very impressive the way he could handle himself behind the plate and offensively."
Acta is quick to note that the defensive part of Santana's game was the reason he did not break camp with the big league squad during Spring Training a year ago. The manager said the club wanted to monitor Santana's progress behind the plate at Triple-A before asking him to handle a Major League pitching staff.
"We did a very good job last year not allowing kids to come up when they weren't ready," Acta said. "Case No. 1 is Carlos Santana. We knew from the get-go that Carlos could compete offensively. We never felt the pressure [to call him up].
"We knew that he had some time to develop his defense, his game calling and everything."
As long as Santana shows he is fully recovered from his knee injury, the Indians believe he is ready to open the 2011 campaign in the Majors. Dr. Rick Parker performed surgery to repair damage to the lateral collateral ligament in Santana's left knee on Aug. 6 and, so far, the catcher is on pace to be ready for Opening Day.
"Carlos is excited," Acta said. "Carlos is going to be able to finish his rehab before Spring Training starts. He's going to start Spring Training ready to go."
Throughout this spring, Santana will also man first base on occasion. The Indians plan on handing some starts to Santana at first this season -- similar to how Victor Martinez was used in his time with the Tribe -- giving the catcher's legs a rest here and there. Acta added that Santana could also see some time as a designated hitter.
Catchers in the mix for the backup role include Lou Marson, Luke Carlin and Paul Phillips. Catcher Juan Apodaca will also be brought into camp as a non-roster invitee for the Indians. As things currently stand, Marson holds the edge for the backup role behind Santana.
After Santana's torrid start at the plate for the Indians, the catcher slipped some through July and into August. Over 28 games from July 1 through Aug. 2, Santana hit just .207. The injury robbed Santana of an opportunity to show Acta and the Indians how he could deal with his first offensive slump in the Majors.
"It was a good opportunity for us to see him bounce back out of it," Acta said.
One thing Acta did have a chance to see, however, was Santana's ability to remain as productive as possible when his batting average was suffering. During that 28-game slide in the batter's box, Santana still posted a .367 on-base percentage, ending his first taste of the bigs with a .401 OBP overall.
That left Acta more than impressed, and excited about Santana's future.
"He's a natural hitter," Acta said. "Even when he was struggling at the plate batting average-wise, he was able to walk, which kept up his on-base percentage around .400 for a kid in his first year in the big leagues. That's what you look for in good hitters."