Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/10/12

Offensively competent catchers are perhaps the rarest commodity in baseball, and clubs tend to go to great lengths to make sure they can keep those guys long-term. The Indians and Carlos Santana agreed to a five-year contract extension yesterday, a deal that guarantees him $21 million and includes a club option for a sixth year. Jordan Bastian of MLB.com and Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer both deserve credit for breaking the news.

Santana, 26, was already under team control through 2016. The new extension kicks in immediately, so it covers his final two pre-arbitration years and all three years of arbitration-eligibility. The club option covers one year of free agency. The Indians gained cost certainty more than anything, though that club option is obviously very appealing. Santana only signed for $75,000 out of Dominican Republic in 2004, so he gets some serious long-term financial security.

Catchers carry more injury risk than any non-pitcher position in baseball. Santana tore up some knee ligaments in 2010 after a collision at the plate, so Cleveland is well aware of the risk. They mitigated it somewhat last year by having him spend a ton of time at first base — 63 starts and 66 total games. Santana started 88 games behind the plate and another three at DH. Despite the presence of Casey Kotchman, I’m sure the Tribe will find ways get him out from behind the plate more than a few times this year, perhaps against left-handed starters.

Spending half the year at first base and DH is a great way to marginalize value, but it should help keep Santana on the field and that’s what’s important for both he and the team. In 658 plate appearances last season — his first and so far only full season in the show — he produced a .382 wOBA with 27 homers. His 14.7% walk rate was the eighth highest in baseball. Although he has shown a bit of a platoon split in his career — .347 wOBA vs. RHP and .383 vs. LHP — it’s just nitpicking at this point. The man can hit.

Most standout catchers sign multi-year contracts before hitting free agency because, as I said, they’re hard to find and teams will go to great lengths to make sure they keep these guys around. Here’s a sampling of similar offensive-first guys and their income during the years covered by Santana’s extension…

Santana M. Montero B. McCann J. Mauer M. Napoli Pre-Arb
$0.4M $0.5M $0.325M $0.425M Pre-Arb $0.425M $0.8M $0.4M $2M Arb 1 $2M $3.5M $3.75M $3.6M Arb 2 $3.2M $5.5M $6.25M $5.8M Arb 3 $5.9M $6.5M $10.5M $9.4M Total $21M $11.925M $16.8M $21.225M $21.225M

Montero and McCann are really good players, but the Indians are gambling that Santana will be more like Mauer and Napoli, truly elite offensive performers. It’s worth noting that Mauer signed a long-term extension while Napoli went year-to-year as a Super Two, meaning he was arbitration-eligible four times rather than the usual three. They ended up making the same amount of money during similar portions of their careers, however.

The Indians should be able to get more plate appearances out of Santana by having him spend some time at first base, and he was definitely an elite hitter last season. There is every reason to expect him to mash going forward, barring something unforeseen like say, tearing knee ligaments while getting run over at the plate. Those are the perils of the position. Santana is very clearly one of the game’s best young players and most valuable assets, ranking 13th in our trade value series last summer and likely to place in the top ten this year. The Tribe isn’t getting much if any discount however, they’re paying Santana the market rate for elite offensive catchers and only secured one free agent year.


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