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Mailbag: Is Santana the real deal?

Mailbag: Is Santana the real deal?

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I'm filing this mailbag in advance of a vacation in Paris. By the time this runs, I'll be that ugly American fumbling through a French translation dictionary to ask a cab driver to take us to Charles de Gaulle Airport. I just hope I don't screw up the translation and ask him if he's ever seen "Charles in Charge."

The language barrier intrigues me. My whole life, I've heard people follow swear words with the phrase, "Pardon my French." So I'm looking forward to spending time in a country where people routinely cuss each other out.

I know this much: "Please" is pronounced "see voo play." And "right field" is pronounced "see Choo play."

This intro has gone about as well as my attempts to learn French. But at least I successfully implanted the "Charles in Charge" theme song in your head, so that can't be a bad thing.

Let's get to this week's questions...

How good is Carlos Santana? How long before he is in the Majors?
-- Paul S., Cleveland

He's already in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Isn't that enough?

(Note: I am contractually obligated to make at least one lame joke per month about guitar legend Carlos Santana when discussing Minor League catcher Carlos Santana. Forgive me.)

Everyone I talk to who has seen Santana says he is the real deal, and the numbers certainly agree. Santana hit a combined .326 with 21 homers and 117 RBIs in 130 games between advanced Class A Inland Empire and Kinston. He had a .999 OPS, led all the Minors with 125 runs scored and ranked second in RBIs. It's little wonder, then, that MiLB.com named him the Best Class A Advanced Hitter in '08.

What impressed me most about Santana was the way his numbers didn't take even the slightest bit of a dip after he was acquired in the July 26 trade that sent Casey Blake to the Dodgers. As we saw with Matt LaPorta, it's natural for young players to struggle with such a jarring transition -- and, on top of that, the Carolina League was regarded as more of a pitching-friendly league. It's a credit to Santana that he never skipped a beat.

On the defensive end, the 22-year-old Santana has a strong arm, but he has room to improve as a receiver. How quickly he improves will go a long way toward determining his big league timetable, as will the Indians' decisions involving Kelly Shoppach and Victor Martinez. With Santana beginning '09 in Double-A, I'd say a 2010 big league break-in is not out of the realm of possibility.

One other note on Santana: The Indians have him working on his English this offseason. They know that in order to ascend at a leadership position like catcher, he'll need to be bilingual.

Can Shin-Soo Choo earn a South Korean military exemption if he plays with Korea in the World Baseball Classic?
-- Ryan M., Marion, Ind.

It appears doubtful. The members of the Korean team received an exemption for reaching the event's semifinals in 2006. That offer was made because it was the tournament's inaugural run. Both Choo and a reporter from a Korean newspaper told me they don't expect that exemption to be offered in 2009.

For what it's worth, Choo nonetheless hopes to participate in the World Baseball Classic.

What is going to happen with Rafael Betancourt next season? Why did he struggle so much? Do you think he'll be on the trading block?
-- Max M., Cleveland

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Question:

The Indians would be ill-advised to trade Betancourt after the season he just had. His trade value is shot, especially given the $3.4 million he is set to make next year.

Betancourt's incredible 2007 season set up unreasonable expectations for what he could bring to the table in '08. And when he struggled in the closer's role during Joe Borowski's DL stint early in the season, it got in his head. One thing I've learned about Betancourt the last few years is that he has a hard time shaking off his struggles. His confidence took a hit early this year, and he never truly recovered.

The Indians were encouraged by the fact that Betancourt went 1-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 22 appearances over the season's final seven weeks. They'll slot him into a middle relief role next year and hope he rights himself. He'll likely never have another season like he did in '07, but he can still be an effective relief option.

I visit the Tribe's Web site a lot and read a lot of what the fans have to say, and there seems to be a lot of criticism of general manager Mark Shapiro. The comments I hear from fans are that he doesn't make enough moves to improve the team and he doesn't go for the big-name free agents. What's your take on that?
-- Kenny K., Elyria, Ohio

Shapiro works within a budget that must be tempered by the realities of the market in which the Indians play. Do I agree with all the moves he's made (and not made)? Of course not. But I have at least understood his rationale behind the majority of those moves, given his budget constraints and the value he must place on his young talent when evaluating trade proposals.

If you want a more on-target criticism of the Shapiro regime, point to the organization's struggle to draft and develop its own talent. After all, the Tribe's only No. 1 Draft selection since CC Sabathia (1998) to make a sustained impact at the big league level is Jeremy Guthrie -- and he's made that impact in Baltimore, not Cleveland.

On the bright side, Shapiro and company have done a good job identifying and acquiring young talent from other organizations and turning it into Major League talent. Witness Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Asdrubal Cabrera, Kelly Shoppach, Travis Hafner and Shin-Soo Choo, to name a few.

What is the major problem that the Indians have with Andy Marte? We knew that he wasn't going to be a high-average hitter when we traded for him. It seems that he has had to look over his shoulder every time he has been inserted as the starter because his average was down. He looked reasonable in the last couple months of the season to at least rate a look, in my opinion. What do you hear?
-- Ray S., Grimes, La.

The Indians really seem to take issue with Marte's inability to hit in the big leagues. That has irked them, for some reason.

You're right that his power potential, not his batting average, was touted when he was acquired in the Coco Crisp trade. But that power was virtually nonexistent this past season, even when Marte turned his performance up a notch in the season's final two months. He hit .291 from Aug. 5 through the end of the season but had just seven doubles, a triple and no homers in that span.

While I think the way Marte was handled the first half of the season was unreasonable, the fact is this guy had a legitimate shot in the second half and did very little with it. You're right that he had to look over his shoulder every time he was inserted into the starting lineup. But that's life in the big leagues, I'm afraid.

Of course, Marte's situation isn't solely his fault. His acquisition was an organizational error. The Indians overvalued his potential and unnecessarily rocked the boat after a 93-win 2005 by trading away their starting left fielder for a third-base prospect who has yet to pan out. Perhaps Marte, out of Minor League options, will have another opportunity elsewhere and will capitalize on it. But I don't see much of a future with the Indians.

And finally...

Do you ever see any Tribe players wearing their Minor League championship rings around the clubhouse? I know that Grady has one for winning it with Double-A Akron and Jhonny Peralta has one from winning with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
-- Teddy E., Asheville, N.C.

No. That would be pretty weak. Right up there with people who wear their high school rings. Or people who own "Charles in Charge" on DVD.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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