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Santana's dedication paying off in unique role

Veteran working extra hard to ensure he's prepared for third base, catching

CLEVELAND -- Baseball does not have a proper description for Carlos Santana's current role with the Indians.

Calling Santana Cleveland's third baseman does not seem right, because he doubles as the club's secondary catcher. Describing him as the backup catcher does not seem accurate, because Santana is in the lineup on a daily basis as the cleanup hitter. Going with "utility man" seems unfair due to his status as an everyday player.

"I don't get too caught up in labels," Indians manager Terry Francona said.

An offseason idea turned Spring Training experiment is now a reality for the Tribe. In the early days of this young season, Santana is garnering the bulk of the innings at third base, hitting in the heart of the order and spelling Yan Gomes behind the plate when the catcher needs a day off. It is a unique role that no one else in the game can claim.

The job forces a balancing act that will surely test Santana as the season progresses. He must not only be diligent with his work at the hot corner, but also focused on maintaining a solid rapport with the pitching staff. Santana must be steady with his conditioning behind the scenes, consistent with his drills on the field and dedicated to his practice in the batting cage.

"It's hard for me," Santana admitted. "But I try doing whatever I can. It is hard -- catching and playing third base -- but the most important thing is I need to help my teammates. I'll be fine."

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There is precedent for Santana's package of positions. You just have to sift through nearly a century's worth of box scores to find the last big leaguer to tackle the kind of tasks that Cleveland's multipurpose player is taking on.

"It's uncharted waters," Francona said.

That is true for the modern ballplayer, yes.

Wally Schang of the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics appeared mostly at third base that season, while also serving as a backup catcher and outfielder. Dating back to 1901, Schang is the only qualified player to spend at least 20 percent of his games in one season at either third base or catcher, with third base being the primary position.

There are other similar cases: B.J. Surhoff (1988), Bob Brenly ('86), Johnny Bench ('74), Earl Williams ('71), Joe Torre ('70), Rudy York ('37), Pat Moran ('04) and Roger Bresnahan ('02). In each of those instances, though, catching served as the main position. Only Santana and Schang -- 99 years apart -- played third base and worked as a backup catcher.

As it happens, Schang also served as Philadelphia's main cleanup hitter, too.

"What Carlos can do is a skill set that not one other player in the league can do," Francona said. "You've got your cleanup hitter that plays third and can catch. That's pretty amazing. Those are ways where we can find ways to try to be better than other teams."

Francona likes to say that the Indians' 25-man roster feels more like a 28-man roster due to the versatility of the team's players. Elliot Johnson and Mike Aviles can handle at least six positions apiece. Ryan Raburn can play the corners in both the infield and outfield. Nick Swisher can slide between first base and right field.

Cleveland's regular catcher over the previous three seasons -- prior to Gomes' emergence with the Tribe last summer -- Santana now moves up and down the third-base line. That role presents arguably the most challenging collection of responsibilities.

"I've told him, 'We're going to have hiccups,'" said Indians third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh, who also works as the team's infield instructor. "'But we can learn from them.' That's what we're trying to do."

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Santana is undertaking an unusual role, but having a player transition from catching to third base is certainly not unheard of in baseball.

A's third baseman Josh Donaldson came up as a catcher in the Minors and was still playing games behind the plate as recently as 2012. Over the past two seasons with Oakland, though, Donaldson has stayed at third, where he has blossomed into an MVP-caliber player.

Donaldson understands the challenges Santana is facing.

"When you're doing it at the same time, the worst part about it is for your arm," Donaldson said. "You're changing angles all of the time. Catcher, you're more of a short arm. When you're going back and forth, you got to make sure you're doing all your maintenance and stuff for your arm, shoulder care.

"As far as third is concerned, you just have to have instincts in doing it, and you have to log the time in with your ground balls and stuff."

Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval also came up as a catcher before adding first and third base to his repertoire as he got deeper into his pro career. When he debuted with San Francisco in 2008, Sandoval appeared in 11 games behind the plate. Sandoval is now nearly exclusively a third baseman, with the occasional start at first mixed in.

"You change a lot of things out there," Sandoval said. "The throwing, the ground balls, especially at third base, where it's a hard place to be. The hot corner. You have to be ready for everything. You have to anticipate the play before it happens."

Sarbaugh said these are the things he and Indians first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. (a former catcher and Cleveland's current catching instructor) keep in mind with Santana. Sarbaugh and Alomar know they must keep lines of communication open in order to make sure Santana is getting the proper amount of side work for both roles. Positioning and footwork are essential at third base. Game-calling, framing and mechanics are critical behind the plate.

"That's the balance," Sarbaugh said. "You're trying to keep everything going in the right direction, but you can't lose sight of either one. That's a challenge, especially in a long season."

Behind the scenes, Santana said he has upped his workout regimen in the gym to four or five days a week. He could not go as often in the past due to the wear and tear on the body that catching causes. Less than two weeks into the season, Santana's legs and body feel fresh. His goal is to do all he can to make that hold up over 162 games.

"I feel good," Santana said. "I'm preparing for that, and I tried to prepare for that in the offseason. It's hard, but I feel great. Right now, we haven't played that many games. I don't know how I'll feel later in the year, but right now, I feel really good."

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Padres outfielder Will Venable swung at a breaking pitch from Corey Kluber on Tuesday, slashing at the baseball and sending it lofting gently above the infield. Santana charged in, dove forward and snared the ball from the air before it could touch the grass.

That fourth-inning out provided a glimpse into Santana's athleticism. Cleveland knew he possessed that attribute, so the club gave him its blessing when he asked to take third base over the offseason. Santana played third eight years ago as a Dodgers farmhand, and he felt playing there again could remove full-time designated-hitter duties from his future.

Eventually, Santana might prefer to make a permanent move to third base.

"The team is in charge of that decision," Santana said. "I can't control that. I'll see what happens during the year."

For now, Santana has done everything the Indians could have hoped since the transition. He played nearly 30 games at third base in the Dominican Winter League, focused on the position throughout Spring Training and has looked increasingly at home as his innings at the hot corner have increased.

"We're encouraged by the work that Carlos has put in from Day 1," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "and the continual progress he's shown. He's gotten better and better really almost every week. As you've watched him play, he's looked more and more comfortable there."

Sarbaugh said there is a lot of work left to be done, but the early returns are promising.

"So far, I'm happy with what he's done over there," Sarbaugh said. "Now, it's just keeping all that work he put in in spring, keeping that going. Just because the season starts, let's not stop. That's a challenge, along with learning from things in the game."

There is not a name for Santana's new role, but it's certainly given him a new label.

"I think what he's done is actually phenomenal," Francona said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
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