Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Axe Man Stayeth

A few months back, the “revelation” that the Indians had no player with a guaranteed contract past the 2013 season became the topic du jour. Whether the momentum of the “topic” was carried because of the lull of the off-season or for other reasons, the “revelation” was treated with general disinterest as the Indians are a young team without many players that needed to be working under guaranteed contracts or the “revelation” was sensationalized in the interest of generating page clicks as imaginary dots were connected on imaginary pages. Fast forward to not even being through the first full week of the 2012 season and the Indians have added a year of club control to Asdrubal Cabrera’s contract (now under control through 2014) and have inked Carlos Santana to a 5-year deal with a club option for what would have been his first year of FA in 2017. With news that the deal is for $21M, now is a good time to remember that past is (as always) prologue here as the Indians lock up their young backstop to a deal that will potentially keep him in an Indians’ uniform through 2017.

While the Indians remain a “young team without many players that needed to be working under guaranteed contracts”, the Santana deal is one that shouldn’t come as much surprise, particularly if you go back to the (recent) history of the Indians and extensions meted out, particularly to young catchers. Just to refresh your memory, going into the 2005 season, a just-turned-26-years-old Victor Martinez agreed to a contract in his pre-arbitration years for a little under $375K. In April of that year, the team tore up that $375K contract for 2005 and replaced it with a deal that guaranteed $15.5M to the player that would become El Capitan over 5 years with a club option for $7M in what would have been his first year of Free Agency (2010) based on service time accumulated to that point.

The breakdown of Victor’s deal looked like this, not including the $1M signing bonus he netted as part of the deal:
2005 - $500K
2006 - $800K
2007 - $3M
2008 - $4.25M
2009 - $5.7M
2010 - $7M club option ($250K buyout)
If those numbers look impossibly low, they are…but remember that the MLB pay scale is based on service time and comparable contracts, so the Indians made this deal with Victor to lock in his arbitration salaries and to potentially buy out his first year of FA (2010) with a club option (that looked big at the time, considering how little Martinez had played in MLB) and a paltry buyout of said club option because they were the ones assuming the risk in the deal, in case injury or attrition would have taken Victor off what looked to be a path to MLB stardom between 2005 and 2010.

Almost done with that history lesson, let’s bring this back to The Axe Man and why this is relevant…
Prior to the 2005 season, Victor had played in 202 games (801 PA) with an .807 OPS after a stellar minor-league career. Victor had turned 26 in December of 2004, so he was starting his “age 26” season. Remember, he signed his extension in April of 2005

Prior to this 2012 season, Santana (who turned 26 this past weekend) had played in 201 games (850 PA) with an .821 OPS after a stellar minor league career and is now signing an extension in April of 2012…

So these guys have more in common than just their team, their jersey number, their heritage, and their position – Santana is basically following the “Victor Plan” in Cleveland. And that’s not such a bad thing as the Indians locked in all of Victor’s arbitration years (and got him at a bargain because of it by assuming the risk associated with inking a player with as little service time as Martinez had) and included a club option for his 1st year of FA. Pending the actual nuts and bolts (dollars) of The Axe Man’s contract, they’ve likely done the same with Santana and while it might be wished that the Indians could keep Santana as long as possible, let’s remember how old Santana is going to be in the years that this contract covers:
2012: 26
2013: 27
2014: 28
2015: 29
2016: 30
Prior to this deal, that was when Santana was able to become a FA and the club option will potentially buy out Santana’s 1st year of FA (at least) in 2017, when he’ll be 31 years old. In this “new” age where players aren’t maintaining production into their late-30s/early-40s, that doesn’t represent a bad thing, particularly given Santana’s position. In fact, it’s interesting to see Victor miss the 2012 season (his “age 33” season) in what is second year of the 4-year deal that the Tigers inked him to last off-season. While other teams are taking future “largesse” and signing players to what seem to be lifetime deals, flying in the face of the idea that past production does not guarantee future results, the Indians are using their experience from the Martinez deal to keep Santana on The Reservation for the same timeframe of each player’s career.

But this is not about the past – this is about the future…
And in terms of that and as for what can be expected from Santana during the life of the contract, 2011 certainly whetted the whistle as he was one of only 4 players to hit 25 HR with 35 2B and 90 BB, joining Miggy Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Prince Fielder on that list. Just so you don’t think that those numbers are just cherry-picked to place Santana in that grouping and that the feat of those three totals aren’t that impressive, consider that only 2 players in MLB hit those marks in 2010 (Joey Bats and Teixeira) and 1 (Nick Swisher) did it in 2009. Grady was the only one to do it in 2008 and – with that name mentioned – don’t take Santana’s 2011 feats as an obvious harbinger of success going forward.

Unfortunately, most Indians’ fans saw how much risk is associated with having their best offensive player as a catcher on what-could-have-been a fateful night in Fenway and everyone remembers how Victor’s injury-filled 2008 season played a role in what looked to be such a promising time for the Indians ending in disappointment and heartbreak. While I don’t know if we’re prepared to wince every time that Santana takes a foul tip off the thumb the way that we once did with Victor, it’s not assured that The Axe Man will stay behind the plate for the life of this deal. At this point, 1B is still a wasteland for the Indians (with no great alternative in sight in the Minors) and Hafner’s contract expires after this year, meaning that Santana could be used in the DH role if needed.

Santana’s 124 OPS+ placed him 44th in MLB among qualified players and the only players that were younger than The Axe Man on that list who appear above him were Alex Avila, Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton, and Andrew McCutchen. Since we know that age is important here – just as it’s important in terms of how long Santana is signed for – the idea that Santana could/should improve going forward is one that’s hard to ignore. In every season except his injury-filled 2008, Victor Martinez posted an OPS over .850 and had 30 or more 2B in each of the seasons (except 2008) from 2005 to the end of his contract in 2010. It’s hard not to imagine Santana enjoying the same steady productive beginning to his career, based on what’s already been seen.

The Indians have moved again and while all they really did was set the salary numbers that they’ll be paying Santana through his arbitration years while buying out one year of FA (potentially), it throws the idea that the Indians have been “scared off” from giving long-term deals to deserving players because of the contracts for Hafner, Westbrook, Sizemore, and Carmona out the window. While that was the accepted line of thinking just a few months ago (for some, at least), the Indians know this path that they’re taking and are willing to accept the risk associated with guaranteeing money to Santana, given the potential reward that is possible – a reward that could be similar to the one they enjoyed with Victor in his prime.

Back in 2005, Victor was a promising backstop with braids who looked to be a middle-of-the-order presence, though few saw him becoming the heart-and-soul of the Indians of the mid-to-late 2000s. While the goodbye with El Capitan was tough as cried in front of his locker, the “getting to know you” part of his Tribe career is what endeared him and continues to endear him. Now, the page has turned to a new #41 behind the plate as Indians’ fans will “get to know” Santana as a player, potentially through the 2017 season as the Indians’ “core” comes into clearer focus and as that “core” remains at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario a little bit longer than most thought just a few months ago.