Praising His Prowess

KINSTON, N.C.—It's only natural for a player after he's traded to check his new organization's depth chart at his position.

That wasn't necessary for catcher Carlos Santana. The recently-acquired Indians farmhand with the musical name has been watching the guy at the top for a while.
Santana, a 22-year-old, switch-hitting catcher from the Dominican Republic, has listed Victor Martinez as his favorite player for as long as he can remember. Santana never has met the two-time American League all-star, but hopes to be competing for his job soon.

Carlos Santana
On one end, the competition may have already begun. Santana, who joined the Indians in the deal that sent Casey Blake to the Dodgers, was batting a combined .329/.432/.568 through 114 games between Inland Empire of the hitter-friendly California League and Kinston of the Carolina League. Though he hit just hit .223 in the Midwest League last season, Santana said he made no technical adjustments to a swing that had produced 17 homers and 103 RBIs this season.

"Nada, nada, nada," he said. "I worked hard in the offseason and established some goals for this year, and it's happening right now. I'm having a great year. I was a good hitter; I didn't change anything. I just came to play ball, and I've had some success."

Better Than Advertised

The success hasn't been limited to his at-bats. A former outfielder and third baseman, Santana had played three professional games behind the plate before the Dodgers converted him last season.

Still, his instincts and plus arm, which he had used to throw out 28 percent of basestealers, lead the Indians to believe they've found a keeper.

"Even a little bit better than advertised," farm director Ross Atkins said.

"What I didn't anticipate from someone who's high school-educated and doesn't speak the English language very well is his intelligence and leadership that stand out on the field—his passion for catching, his passion just for the game.

"He keeps the same intensity level, regardless of the score, regardless of his offensive performance. And those are just innate, natural leadership abilities that he may not even realize he has."

The skills were acquired relatively quickly. Santana, one of eight children in his Santo Domingo family, started playing baseball when he was 12. For the next five years, he bounced around at every position except pitcher, landing at third base and the outfield when the Dodgers signed him in 2004.

The 5-foot-11, 188-pound backstop said he tries to emulate Martinez as a hitter and the Dodgers' Russell Martin as a catcher. His athleticism has helped him stand out quickly as he's continued to refine his defensive abilities. The result, even on short notice, is a polished backstop.

"He moves well back there," Kinston manager Chris Tremie said. "His hands are pretty soft. He needs to make some adjustments with them, but it's adjustments that, when you watch him catch, I think he'll easily make."

Kinston sinkerballer Carlton Smith said Santana already had grasped many of the crucial nuances of catching, such as blocking balls in the dirt, calling pitches according to the strengths of the guy on the mound and framing strikes just off the corner.

And the arm? Smith, a righthander, smiled.  "Absolute hose," he said.

Not That Carlos Santana

And then there's the name. Santana has heard songs like  "Black Magic Woman" and "Maria Maria" in ballparks from Modesto to Myrtle Beach.

Even the hometown Indians couldn't resist, playing his famous namesake's "Smooth" as Santana approached the plate—until he politely protested.

"All the time," Santana said when asked about the frequency of musical references, adding that the jokes have become tiring. But he's working steadily toward seizing control of the Santana name.

"I'm not going to be comfortable," he said. "I want to raise my level of play every year."

Indians scouting director John Mirabelli had scouted Santana shortly before the Blake deal, while seeking potential trade targets for C.C. Sabathia. Mirabelli remained impressed after seeing the new player in an Indians uniform.

"I was expecting a little less polish behind the plate in terms of receiving and defense," he said. "I've been pleasantly surprised. He handles himself well back there. He's a very good athlete. He can throw, and I think his offense is going to speak for itself."

Santana is slightly better from the left side, from which he hit 15 of his first 17 homers this season. But between both leagues, he was hitting .319 against righthanders and .359 versus lefties.

"He's the real deal," Atkins said. "He's got power, he's got discipline and he's got an amazing feel for the bat head. He seems to have the three components of a really professional hitter."

Santana said he understood the trade from a business standpoint. As a fan, Santana was excited to join the organization of his baseball idol.

While with Inland Empire, Santana wore No. 41 as a nod to Martinez. He wanted the number in Kinston, but by the time he arrived, there was already a No. 35 jersey hanging in his locker with "Santana" sewn on the back.

To get one with "Cleveland" on the front, the toolsy convert will have to leapfrog catchers at two more levels, and then compete with one of the game's finest.

"I have confidence in myself," Santana said. "I'm pretty sure that I can be one of the best catchers in the organization."

Just like that, he might already be there.

David Hall covers the Indians for the Kinston Free Press.