Earlier this week, our own Mark Warmuth flagged a significant question all MLB teams will face this summer.
How patient can you afford to be with a struggling player when the season is cut in half?
As noted in the article, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona is usually one to let his players try to hit their way out of funks, no matter how ugly they get. However, with the league proposing an 82-game schedule for this summer, time won’t be on his side. It certainly makes you wonder what kind of leash Francona will provide for someone slumping at the plate.
When considering which Indians players this may impact the most, Domingo Santana is the first to come to mind. Cleveland’s offseason pickup has more than a few things working against him this season, all of which hammer home how important it is for him to avoid a slow start.
Of all the reasons a shortened season adds more urgency for Santana, his contract situation is the most obvious.
The Tribe signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract right before spring training. The move was essentially one of Cleveland's classic “low cost/potential high reward” offseason signings.
To be fair, Santana isn’t in the same age bracket as most of the players Cleveland typically inks to deals like these. Still, he’s on his third team in three years, and signed a contract which was back-loaded into a second-year, $5 million team option.
Santana is also coming off a bipolar season with the Seattle Mariners. Though he slashed well in the first half of 2019 (.286/.354/.496), his performance plummeted after the All-Star break (.128/.234/.234) while his strikeout rate ballooned (44.4%).
Admittedly, this one is a little easier to dismiss, since his second half was marred by an elbow injury he attempted to play through. Regardless, these struggles, combined with an unimpressive 2018 campaign, did enough to chill his market this past winter.
Finally, further pressure is added when you consider the only value Santana brings to the Indians is at the plate.
While he offers above average raw power offensively (career .194 ISO), Santana is quite the butcher in the outfield. Sure, defense has never been his calling card. That said, 2019 was a particularly bad campaign for him, as he led all outfielders with 12 errors while notching the lowest defensive runs above average in the majors (-22.4).
In a normal year, none of these factors would light an immediate fire under Santana. He’d have a few months to play his way out of any early-season funk he endured.
That may not be the case this summer. With only 82 games to work with, the wait-and-see approach may have to be tabled earlier than usual.
This isn’t meant to say early struggles are guaranteed for Santana in 2020, nor is it to imply he should get the quick hook after only a handful of at-bats.
Still, with less time to waste, the Indians will likely need to see plate success sooner rather than later. In order for Santana to provide this, he'll need to buck -- or at least improve -- his issues with whiffs.
In fairness, strikeouts are a bit of a package deal with Santana. He’s finished all but one of his six big league seasons with a strikeout rate of at least 32.3%.
Expecting him to develop significantly improved plate discipline this season would be lofty. His spring did little to imply otherwise, as he struck out in ten of his 25 plate appearances.
However, the question isn’t whether Santana can fix his strikeout woes. Instead, the question is how long are the Indians willing to wait for Santana to pair said strikeouts with production. It may sound aggressive, but the fact is lineup holes become much more glaring when there’s less time for course correction.
It’s worth noting Cleveland is coming off a season in which it showed less patience than usual with its bargain bin offseason signings. Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez represented the team’s “marquee” free agency pickups for 2019, and a lack of production from each resulted in both being gone by the end of May.
Yes, Ramirez (35) and Gonzalez (33) were past their prime, which can’t be said for Santana (27). Still, all three signed the kind of deals which aren’t viewed as significantly sunk costs if scrapped early.
Normally, Santana would have at least a couple months to get going and prove his worth to the Indians. His contract situation and strikeout issues would be worth flagging, sure, but certainly not as reasons why he couldn’t afford a slow start.
This season, that kind of time won’t be available. While the Indians aren’t going to just ditch any struggling player, Santana’s situation is a bit unique.
Simply put, they don’t owe it to themselves to give him a lengthy look, and are facing added pressure to play competitive baseball from the get-go.
It’s an unfortunate combination for Santana, and it’s exactly why he needs to come out strong in 2020. Otherwise, his opportunity to prove himself won’t be lengthy.