MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Indians relying on Santana to get right

Castrovince: Tribe relying on Santana to get right

Indians relying on Santana to get right
CLEVELAND -- Manny Acta was coming off the field after batting practice on Wednesday when the Indians' manager passed a big crowd of beefy men -- Cleveland Browns rookies assembled at Progressive Field during a break from mandatory minicamp.

"Hey," Acta yelled, "any of you guys hit from the right side?"

They all nodded eagerly, but, unfortunately, they were confused.

They thought Acta was talking about tackling.

No, Acta explained, he wanted to know if they know how to bat from the right-hand side. And sadly, none of them could help Acta out with this one. But that didn't stop the skipper from jokingly trying to set up a batting practice tryout.

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Acta's Indians awoke on the first day of summer in first place in the American League Central. And behind a masterful outing from Justin Masterson and eight runs of output off Bronson Arroyo and Alfredo Simon, they extended that standing while completing a three-game sweep of the in-state rival Reds in the prestigious Ohio Cup.

So the Tribe enjoyed some summer solstice satisfaction heading into an off-day, and that's certainly good for the soul. But beyond the in-the-moment elation is the internal acknowledgement that certain trends can't reasonably continue if the Indians are to remain in the top spot and then be any kind of October factor.

That's why Acta is willing to look anywhere -- the American League, the National League and even the National Football League -- for right-handed-hitting help. If an election-year analogy can be employed here, this Tribe lineup leans further left than any liberal politician or pundit, and this is at least one reason why consistency has not been a strong suit for the Tribe starting nine.

Naturally, this has become quite the typical topic in these parts, particularly as the summer swapping season draws near and the rumor mill churns. Kevin Youkilis? Alfonso Soriano? Carlos Quentin? Josh Willingham? They're all right, so they're all right, and the Indians are expected to explore any and all right-handed options that might present themselves in the trade market.

But the Indians also know that, by and large, Trade Deadline acquisitions are only one small part of the picture and can't necessarily be counted on for the kind of aggressive impact that would be provided by, say, another 27-homer season from Carlos Santana.

Indeed, for the Indians to have more series like this one and, more to the point, more offensive explosions like Wednesday's, they're going to need to squeeze everything they can out of their current assemblage.

"This offense has it in itself," second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "It just doesn't happen every night."

Here's the good news: Acta's somewhat unconventional decision to place Shin-Soo Choo in the leadoff spot has proven to be one of his shrewdest managerial moves, as Choo's on-base ability has worked wonders in the top spot. Asdrubal Cabrera remains an elite offensive shortstop, and he's been joined in the middle-of-the-diamond mashing by Kipnis, who is sandwiched between Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia in AL second baseman OPS output. Pretty good company.

As far as the bit players are concerned, Lonnie Chisenhall nearly hit for the cycle the other night and looks increasingly comfortable on the big league stage. Michael Brantley has been steady but is still not the OBP machine the Indians hoped he would be. Casey Kotchman is a stellar first baseman but a first baseman with a .641 OPS, all the same. Johnny Damon? The .203 average has made him a de facto talk radio target, but Acta is adamant that Damon has made his limited hits -- including a two-run homer off Arroyo on Wednesday -- count.

"I can point out right now," Acta said, "at least five games in the last 10 days where Johnny had something to do with us winning the ballgame."

Any and all contributions from that cast is welcomed, obviously, but if this club's going to reach its offensive potential -- particularly with designated hitter Travis Hafner in the midst of his annual disabled list stint -- it simply can't afford the power drought currently endured by the switch-hitting Santana. The catcher still gets on base at a satisfying clip (.350 OBP), but his slugging percentage is 100 points below his 2011 pace.

"He's a bat we obviously need at full strength," Acta said, "especially in a situation right now where we've spent a few weeks without Hafner. He's vital, he's very important to our aspirations. The way our lineup is structured, a guy like him is huge."

Unfortunately, Santana's swing has become just as huge, and his pull-happy tendencies have sapped his strengths. Dating back to the beginning of May, Santana has notched just 31 hits in 142 at-bats, and only 10 of those hits have gone for extra bases, including two home runs. One might assume the concussion he suffered in late May -- an injury that cost him a week and a half of action -- might have some impact, but the Indians see issues in approach and mechanics that date back before he took a foul ball to the noggin.

Considering Santana ripped 27 homers -- an elite tally, given the demands of his position -- in a 2011 season in which it was presumed he might be hampered by the ill effects of a 2010 knee injury, this current output is not at all what the Indians expected from their cleanup man in 2012.

And it's costly, given the composition and handedness of the heart of the order.

"I just need to be patient," Santana said. "I know what kind of hitter I am."

He's a hitter who, roughly one-third of the time, bats from the right-hand side. And so while the external search for help will increase in earnestness in the coming weeks (as if Acta's NFL interests weren't earnest enough), it's the internal quest for the Santana of old that figures to have greater import on these first-place Indians.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.