Carlos Santana barely flinched in early August when Phillies manager Gabe Kapler asked if he would feel comfortable playing third base later in the season.
After all, Santana thought, he once volunteered for that assignment.
It was 2013, and the Cleveland Indians had just lost the American League wild-card game. Santana was still one of their top hitters, but after four seasons behind the plate, he had been supplanted by Yan Gomes as their best defensive catcher. The Indians considered Santana at first base or designated hitter, but those roles were occupied, at least partially, by Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi.
So, in his end-of-season meeting with manager Terry Francona, Santana made a suggestion. He would go to winter ball in his native Dominican Republic and play third base in an attempt to return to a position he once played in the minor leagues.
"The one thing with Carlos, if there's a goal of his — and going into 2014, his goal was to be the everyday third baseman — he puts everything into it," Indians infield coach Mike Sarbaugh said by phone Thursday. "He really worked hard at it that year."
Yet for as hard as Santana worked, both in winter ball and throughout spring training, the experiment didn't last long. He was the Indians' opening-day third baseman in 2014 and started 26 of the first 40 games at his new position. But he committed six errors in 225 innings and didn't play there again after May 22.
Five years later, though, the Phillies might give Santana another crack at third base. And this time, Sarbaugh thinks it could actually work.
"I definitely feel like he's more prepared to be over at third base now than he was back in '14," Sarbaugh said. "Back then, he was still going to do some catching. We weren't sure how much. There was a little bit of indecision on where he would play. But being an infielder for the last two or three years full time has really helped him if he does transition to be a third baseman."
Moving Santana from first base to third makes sense for the Phillies because of the impact it would have on Rhys Hoskins. It's clear that Hoskins is more at home at first base than in left field, where he ranked as one of the worst defenders in baseball this season. And considering Hoskins is a major part of the Phillies' core, it's important to keep him comfortable.
But the Phillies were also the majors' worst defensive team in 2018. Improving at every position is an organizational imperative, so if they move Santana to third base, they might have to prioritize finding a shortstop with greater defensive range, a description that doesn't necessarily apply to free-agent prize Manny Machado. But considering Santana is owed $40 million over the next two seasons, the Phillies might have to decide between sacrificing defense at third base with Santana or in left field with Hoskins.
"That's like the question, would you rather get an 'A' in an honors class or a 'B' in an AP class? I'd rather get an 'A' in an AP class," said Dartmouth-educated general manager Matt Klentak. "I think it's about team defense and making sure we prevent the most runs that we can."
The Phillies had Santana start 10 of the season's final 12 games at third base. It was only a glimpse, not nearly enough time to make definitive judgments. But he made almost all the plays he was expected to make, especially when the Phillies were positioned straight-up rather than in a shift that left him all alone on the left side of the infield.
"He's an athletic guy," Kapler said. "He's played behind the plate. He's thrown from different angles. He makes good decisions, and he's a strong, accurate thrower."
Sarbaugh drew many of the same conclusions five years ago. Back then, though, he said Santana lacked familiarity with some infield basics. He had a strong arm but wasn't proficient at the footwork required to make consistently accurate throws. And it took time for Santana to regain what many third basemen describe as an "internal clock," the instinct that allows them to anticipate the speed of a runner or how aggressive to be on a particular ball.
"Carlos has such good arm strength that he didn't really have to ever think about his footwork," Sarbaugh said. "Those were things that we really had to emphasize — using his lower half, making sure his feet were quick after he catches the ball. I do think, just with him being at first base and using his legs more, feeding the pitcher covering first, turning double plays, I think all of those things that he's done over the last two or three years would help him."
Looking back, Sarbaugh believes the Indians' decision to abort the Santana-at-third experiment was as much a function of other factors as it was a condemnation of Santana's ability to play the position.
After a 92-win season in 2013, they were contending for a playoff spot again and didn't have the luxury of giving Santana on-the-job training during the season. The Indians also felt Lonnie Chisenhall provided more defensive stability at third base and recognized a chance to give Santana at-bats at first base.
"Maybe if the circumstances were a little different, I think we could've let him stay there a little bit longer," Sarbaugh said. "We didn't have that time frame. I think he could've adjusted to third base. I do think, with his athleticism, his arm strength, his hands, I think there was some opportunity there for him to become that everyday guy.
"It doesn't surprise me that the Phillies are looking at him at third base because he has those abilities. I always say, when you are asked to go there in a big-league game, sometimes it can get a little bit tough on you. But Carlos can handle that."
The Phillies must now decide for themselves. And as with everything else they do this offseason, there's a lot riding on it.