The first games of spring training usually present the questions like, how long will player x play, how many innings will these pitchers get, where are we golfing and eating dinner after?

Finding a leadoff and cleanup hitter?
That’s serious stuff for the first week of Cactus League games. Booking a wedding venue with no fiancé is moving at a slower pace.

Still, with Michael Brantley presumably out until at least May, it’s a question the Indians have to ask early and often and come up with an answer sooner than later. They’re already behind the proverbial eight ball without arguably their best position player in a month they’ve been historically bad in under Terry Francona, with a lineup that has many other questions.

Carlos Santana leading off?

Francona tried hitting him second a year ago that didn’t’ exactly come up with the desired outcome. Santana’s 2015 season was a mixed bag. Filled with more of what is depending on who you ask or what numbers you prefer. But leading off?

He has a career .365 on-base percentage, exactly what you want in a leadoff hitter. His .357 clip a year ago was the lowest in his career since 2011, his first full season in the big leagues. He even stole 11 bases last year, a career high, only six less than Michael Bourn, the ex-Indians leadoff hitter. Jason Kipnis, the Indians main leadoff hitter last year, had 12 but was thrown out eight times compared to Santana’s three.

Not to pump up Santana’s base running prowess, but without Brantley for at least 23 games, Santana in the leadoff spot is at least worth considering. In 775 plate appearances leading off an inning, which in reality he might do twice again, Santana has a .223/.320/.392 line (and a .246 BABIP) with 109 walks.

Contrary to popular belief (as proven by August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs
Santana is better with runners on ahead of him, along with other misconceptions. But being on base in front of arguably the Indians best hitter a year ago, Kipnis. He is .273/.360/.410 as the third hitter in 828 plate appearances. He’s been best as a leadoff man and marginally worse as the second hitter. Francisco Lindor, who was virtually locked into the second spot a year ago, only has small sample sizes everywhere, so counting any stats into this case is pointless. Only to say that he’ll probably hit anywhere between first and third in the Indians lineup, regardless when Brantley is back in the lineup.

The case against Santana to hit first? In theory, that will gain him an extra at bat or two each game. While Santana is certainly more valuable than the mob of Indians fans on twitter might have you believe, is he the player you want to give five at bats to over someone else on the roster, say Kipnis or Lindor?

Probably not.

Leading off an inning might happen once or twice a game, but it’s a guarantee that he’ll wind up with extra at bats because of that spot. Last year, Cubs manager Joe Maddon used Anthony Rizzo in the second spot in 43 games where he had identically awesome stats as he did hitting third and a fair bit better than he did hitting cleanup. The progressive NL Manager of the Year in 2015 got Rizzo an extra possible at bat and in front of budding star Addison Russell, who hit ninth, so really led off for Dexter Fowler and then Rizzo, hitting third essentially.

Mike Trout has over 1,400 plate appearances hitting second in his career, hitting mostly leadoff or third behind that since breaking out. While the Angels haven’t had much behind Trout at any spot in the lineup outside of Kole Calhoun, he’s definitely getting more at bats and rightfully so, by batting in the top two spots.

So maybe the Indians consider hitting Santana ninth? Where he’d have chances to bat in front of Kipnis, Lindor and Brantley at some point, without getting five at bats. While he gets on base and has offensive value, Santana does of course have his limitations at the plate. And five at bats a game are bound to expose some of those at some point.
Rajai Davis, who many see as another option to leadoff while he keeps left field warm for Brantley, has an uninspiring .259/.309/.372 line in the top spot in 1,463 plate appearances. Someone else you want getting an at bat more a game than Kipnis or Lindor?

The case for Santana is one at least worth studying to see if he’s comfortable (as he wasn’t hitting second a year ago) and if it sets up the Indians lineup any better and the way they’re looking for. While Brantley is out, they have to explore options to put the best lineup out there, especially in April.

But the perception of the leadoff hitter seems to be very misconstrued. The leadoff hitter might leadoff two times a game at most. The more likely outcome is that the leadoff hitter gets at least an extra at bat every game and possibly the number two hitter. Santana hitting in front of Kipnis and Lindor is certainly a great theory but at the expense of giving him five at bats a game over Kipnis or Lindor? Both are capable of handling the leadoff spot and probably warrant that extra at bat more than Santana. The Indians can reap the benefits of Santana getting on base late in the game to set the two up rather than having him get five at bats.

But it’s March 1, and where are we golfing after the game? Check out our IndiansNation fan page or follow Justin on Twitter @JL_Baseball
​POSTED 03/01/2016 00:00
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Opinion by Justin Lada