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Carlos Santana may never hit for league average, but he should be a reliable source of power
Although it seems he has been around a long time, Santana will be just 26 years old on Opening Day. He has been inconsistent in terms of his performance during his brief career, so I was tempted to slot him lower than third in my rankings. Ultimately, I felt compelled to rank him here in consideration of his power potential, his versatility (he will qualify at C, 1B and DH in most leagues), and the fact that he will be playing his age 27 season in 2013. But the truth is it's very possible this could be the last year he is ranked among the Top Five fantasy catchers.
In terms of his offensive production—the benchmark for evaluating players in fantasy baseball—he has been a disappointment since his arrival in the major leagues in 2010. He has been victimized as much by hype and the unrealistic expectations that accompanied him to Cleveland as by the growing pains he has endured. It's inarguable that he's an outstanding defensive receiver, but an honest assessment of his offensive skill set must result in a grade of "D" (for disappointment) after three seasons with the Indians (one of which was cut short by injury). At this point, he hasn't reminded baseball fans of Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk, as was expected. To the contrary, the catchers he is most similar to through age 26 are Gus Triandos and Gene Tenace.
Santana has always demonstrated excellent plate discipline. He draws bases on balls at a rate that is well above league average (his career rate is 15 percent) but paradoxically, he has also struck out too often (18 percent). His penchant for striking out has minimized his contact rate and lowered his batting average. Last year he showed a significant improvement in his strikeout rate, cutting his K-rate by 3.6 percent, which in turn produced improvement in his contact rate (a career high 80 percent) and batting average (he raised his batting average 13 points to .252).
It is hard to analyze last year's performance and draw conclusions for 2013 and beyond. His 2012 campaign was a Jekyll-Hyde season, and his full-season statistics continued a regression in many of the offensive metrics (i.e., a four-year free-fall in Slugging Percentage and a three-year slide in OPS and OPS+).
But last year was a Tale of Two Halves. The first half was frighteningly bad, while the second half was significantly better and provides fantasy owners with hope he may have turned a corner. It's impossible to determine whether July-October will be the new norm, or whether it is an outlier that will just lead to continued disappointment for his fantasy owners. Is it possible he will start to live up to the enormous expectations we have held for him since he was promoted to The Show? It seems likely that the answer to that question is almost assuredly "no", which says as much about the height of the expectations as it does about his skill sets.
As his strikeout rate plummeted in the second half of last year, his contact rate soared (to 85 percent) and his batting average improved (.278). According to Baseball Forecaster, he hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls and enjoyed a rebound in his home run rate; consequently, he produced 13 HRs in just 284 AB in the season's last three months. But even those numbers pale in comparison to what we all expected of him when The Tribe tabbed him as their starting catcher.
The question: Will the "real" Carlos Santana please stand up?
What can fantasy owners expect? Let's start by observing that his abysmal batting average in 2011 (.239) and in the first half of last year (.220) were the result of low contact (76 percent and 74 percent) and hit rates (27 percent and 28 percent). While those hit rates suggest he may have been the victim of some bad luck, his career hit rate (29 percent) isn't much better, suggesting he may be precisely what we have seen—a low-average hitter with prodigious power who will never hit 30+ homers on a consistent basis because he hits too many ground balls. On the other hand, it's entirely possible he figured some things out last summer and that he will be able to hit .270+ with 25-30 HR and 90+ ribbies annually.
Yeah, and it is possible I will win the Powerball jackpot.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It is unlikely he has suddenly become a hitter who will post contact rates in the low- to mid-80s, though he may improve enough to post rates in the high-70s to low-80s. And due to the fact he consistently hits many more ground balls than fly balls, he will struggle to consistently produce power numbers that are commensurate with his strength (NOTE: the 27 HR he hit in 2011 were the result of a 16 percent HR-rate, well above his career norm of 12 percent). The likelihood is that he will regress toward his career norms across the board, though there will be a measure of improvement owing to experience at the big league level. It seems likely he will hit .260, with 18-20 HR and 75-80 RBI.
It's possible a couple of the younger catchers could put up numbers that surpass these projections (Perez, Rosario), but they have limited track records to rely upon, so I am loathe to rank them higher than Santana at this point. Still, when we look back on the 2013 season next winter, I would not be surprised if Santana finished outside of the Top Five in fantasy production.