Manager Terry Francona had a difficult decision when tasked with making out his lineup for Game 3 of the 2016 World Series in Chicago. For all of the season prior to that point, Francona had a choice of whether to DH Carlos Santana or Mike Napoli and the other player would man first base, but in the National League park, the DH wasn’t permitted, so who would be the odd man out?
Francona, with some obvious trepidation, decided to give Santana a shot in left field for only his second appearance there in his career (he once played four innings in left field in 2012). This would let Napoli be the first baseman and the way to get both power hitters in to the lineup against Kyle Hendricks.
Was it worth the risk that Santana might botch a play in left field? He was immediately tested in the bottom of the first inning when Kris Bryant hit a routine fly ball to Santana, which he caught with no trouble. That would be the only play of the game for Santana until he was removed in the bottom of the fifth inning when Andrew Miller was brought in as part of a double switch to relieve Josh Tomlin.
In Game 4, Santana started at 1B and Napoli sat the bench to start the game. Santana lasted until the 7th inning before Francona did another double switch with Miller and brought in Napoli to hit and play first base.
For Game 5, Francona again went with Santana in left field, where he made two routine plays, and Napoli at first base. Although the Indians didn’t win the game, the strategy worked with no ill effects on the fielding side.
So what’s the point of this recap? Well, the Indians are considering giving Santana some time in the outfield during Spring Training and in the 2017 regular season. The slugger also appears open to the idea as he prefers to play the field whenever possible. Although Napoli is now gone, Edwin Encarnacion was signed as a free agent and he’ll either DH or play first base. He’s not playing the outfield. Of course, another World Series appearance isn’t a given, but having Santana become even just an adequate left fielder would provide just a bit more insurance in case Michael Brantley isn’t able to be what we’ve all been accustomed to before his injury.
Because he’s a switch-hitter, Santana isn’t one who needs to platoon. Although he might be considered to be a slightly better hitter against lefties with a career slash of .277/.383/.439 (.823 OPS) compared to .233/.357/.446 (.802 OPS) against righties. Realistically, the idea of using Santana as an outfielder would likely be more appealing in the regular season on those days when Francona might want to DH Yan Gomes or Roberto Perez and have the other player catch. This might be a way to improve the lineup against a lefty pitcher and give the right-handed hitting Perez and Gomes a little more playing time.
A potential outfield lineup could be Santana in left, Abraham Almonte (or maybe Austin Jackson) in center and Brandon Guyer in right, when facing a lefty. Then Encarnacion could play first base and Gomes and Perez would split the DH and catching duties. It would make Jason Kipnis the only regular starter who hits left-handed. Plus, it could provide a way for the Indians to free up a utility player to give Kipnis an occasional day off on that same day, if desired, without losing too much offense.
This concept probably wouldn’t occur too often, I would think, but what it would do for the long-term and potential championship run is let Santana feel a bit more comfortable in the outfield during a less-pressured game than a World Series contest. At worst, the idea gives Francona even more flexibility with his team. We’ve seen how creative this manager has been with his lineups and pitching staff, so consider it another tool in the toolbox.
Of course, as Santana plays more in the outfield the chance of him making mistakes in the field also increase. That’s the trade-off, unless Santana is surprisingly decent in the outfield. So far, we just don’t know because he wasn’t needed to make challenging plays during his two games appearing in left during the World Series.
This potentially provides Francona with more options, which could be a big key when every little edge is needed in a high-stakes World Series game. That’s what we’re talking about for the 2017 season after all, winning the first title since 1948.