CLEVELAND -- The idea is still in a conceptual stage, but it is nonetheless intriguing. The Indians will have versatile catcher Carlos Santana play some third base in winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason, possibly adding another position to his repertoire.
Speaking while on his way to a golf outing in California this week, Indians manager Terry Francona warned against putting the proverbial cart ahead of the horse. Consider this an experiment for Santana, even if it is one that could help reshape Cleveland's lineup, or even the team's offseason strategy.
"We're getting a little ahead here," Francona said. "He's going to go over there and play a little third, just to see. He came up as a third baseman, but I think he's about eight years removed. It can't hurt anything. He wanted to get some at-bats anyway. If he wants to go over there and do that, all that can really happen is positive."
The idea of giving Santana a test run at third base was born from a handful of factors.
Cleveland's regular catcher over the past few years, Santana saw his time behind the plate decrease as Yan Gomes emerged as the better defensive option last season. In order to keep the switch-hitting Santana in the lineup, he was used more as a designated hitter and first baseman in the second half, filling in as the backup catcher as well.
Santana has doubled as a part-time first baseman for the past few seasons, but that position now belongs primarily to Nick Swisher. That forced Santana to work as the Tribe's main DH during the team's second-half push to the playoffs. While he accepted the role to help the Indians' postseason quest, Santana expressed in September that he did not like being a DH.
"This is a little hard for me," Santana said at the time. "For me, I want to win. The manager put Yan behind the plate and he's done a good job, so we're better hitting and catching, too. It's hard for me, but I'm not thinking about that. I'm confident in the manager about the lineup he puts out every day."
Francona kept an open line of communication with Santana in the second half, and they discussed the situation again after the season ended. The manager made it clear to Santana that the Indians do see him as more than just a designated hitter. Cleveland sees Santana as an offensive weapon that can be utilized at a handful of positions.
"We don't want him to be a full-time DH," Francona said. "It's actually kind of a unique situation. His ability to move around impacts everybody else. His bat, we want it right in the middle of our batting order. And his ability to play first and catch, that's kind of a unique skillset. The more positions he can play, it just allows us to get more bats into the lineup. He's open to it, so we're willing to be open also."
Santana last played third base regularly in 2006, when he manned the hot corner in 38 games between three Class A levels in the Dodgers' farm system. That was a long time ago, but Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said it was Santana who brought up the idea of trying his hand at third base once again.
"We're focused on trying to find a way for Carlos to have the biggest impact on our team," Antonetti said. "A way to do that is for him to be able to do things beyond DH. We obviously know he can catch. He's shown he can play first base. Carlos, to his credit said, 'Hey, I've played third base in the past. I'm happy to go to winter ball and get some more experience at third and see how it goes.'"
Francona said Indians third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh, who doubles as the Tribe's infield instructor, plans on heading to the Dominican to work with Santana at third base. If things go well in winter ball, it is likely that Cleveland will give Santana some innings at third base in Spring Training, too.
What is clear is that -- even though Gomes has taken over the starting catching role -- the Indians want Santana in the lineup. Last year, Santana hit .268 with an .832 OPS, piling up 20 homers, 60 extra-base hits, 75 runs and 94 walks along the way. Santana's 281 walks over the past three seasons rank second to only Cincinnati's Joey Votto (339) in the Major Leagues.
If Santana proves to be a viable option for third base, Cleveland might view it as a way to maximize the offense from a position that produced a .218 average (last in the American League) and .274 on-base percentage (last in AL) in 2013. The left-handed-hitting Lonnie Chisenhall has hit .244 (.694 OPS) in parts of three seasons as the Tribe's third baseman, posting a .194 career mark againt lefties.
The Indians might give the 25-year-old Chisenhall another chance this season, or the club might tell him he needs to earn his way on the big league roster.
Francona reiterated that it is far too early in the offseason to make such decisions.
"We don't know what that conversation is going to be yet," said the manager. "We've got to wait to see how the winter plays out."
Santana has hit .285 (.855 OPS) in his career against left-handed pitching, making him a possible part-time replacement for Chisenhall at third base, if this experiment pays off. Among the utility men, the Indians prefer Mike Aviles' defense over Ryan Raburn at third base, but Aviles hit .269 (.605 OPS) against lefties last year and Raburn is viewed more as a backup for right field.
The Indians could also target an alternative for third base this winter.
"Some of it will depend upon how things go with Carlos in winter ball," Antonetti said, "and what other options are out there. It's not a position of great depth on the market, though."
That is why the Indians are considering every possibility, including giving Santana a try at third.
"And, if he was able to handle it, then we'd have to probably rethink it," Francona said. "It adds versatility. It's just such an early stage. I just don't want to get too far ahead with anything."