His bat wasn’t getting Sergio Santos to the major leagues. But, surprisingly, his arm did.
Santos – a classic good-field, no-hit shortstop – had not pitched since he was 13 years old. But Buddy Bell, the former big-league manager and third baseman, knew the current Toronto Blue Jays closer had an arm. What if he could actually pitch?
So, Bell, the Chicago White Sox director of player development, asked White Sox general manager Kenny Williams and pitching coach Don Cooper if they were interested in an audition. They were, and so Bell put the idea to Santos during spring training in 2009 at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
“Buddy said, ‘You look to be a utility player at Triple-A,’ ” Santos recalled before a recent Grapefruit League game. “And I felt too good to be a Triple-A utility guy. Buddy asked me about throwing some that day for Kenny and Coop. I thought about and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ They were excited after I pitched, but I was still reluctant. Buddy said, ‘We won’t let you rot.’ I decided to try it.”
What did he have to lose, really? He was stuck at Triple A because he could not get his batting average above the Mendoza Line. Forget about Santos, who is 6 feet 3 and 240 pounds, hitting his weight. He couldn’t hit .200.
But the big guy, crude as he was, could really hum and hook the ball.
So, the White Sox took a flyer, and Santos flew.
But get this: He made it to the big leagues despite never winning or saving a game in the minors. He got the call in 2010 despite an 8.16 earned-run average in just 26 games in 2009.
Calling him up was a crazy-like-a-fox move by Chicago.
Santos saved 30 games in 2011 and has a 3.29 ERA in the majors. He has struck out 148 in only 115 innings, but needs to cut down on the 55 walks that compute to nearly one every other inning.
“It is a remarkable story,” said Toronto pitching coach Bruce Walton. “It’s amazing that he was a position player because you just don’t see a position player who can spin a breaking ball like that.
“He’s a very high energy guy. The late-inning role fits his personality. He doesn’t let little things bug him.”
According to Bill Scherrer, a special assistant to the general manager with the White Sox, the mental side was as important as the skills in the team bringing up Santos so quickly with so little actually accomplished.
“You trust the recommendation of your player-development people,” Scherrer said. “They knew him, and said that both mentally and physically he was ready. His stuff was really, really good. And he’s really mature.
“And when he got up to the big club, he performed. Ozzie [Guillen]believed in him. Hey, he has a nasty breaking ball.”
Not mention that heater that tops out at 99 miles an hour and averages 96 to 97.
And after one season in the majors, Guillen, now manager of the Miami Marlins, gave him the most important job in the bullpen.
“Coop and Ozzie gave me confidence,” Santos, 28, said.
He earned that confidence.
The first batter often is the key for a reliever, and they batted .125 off Santos. Right-handed hitters were just .130 against him.
He came out of nowhere to get outs.
“I knew I wanted to be the closer and it’s a role I like,” Santos said. “It’s a blessing. It was just such a blessing to get a second chance in baseball.”
He was the first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2002 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. And as odd as his position switch story is, he also has a unique football story.
The quarterback ahead of him at Mater Dei was Matt Leinart and the quarterback behind him was Matt Barkley. Both starred at the University of Southern California. Leinart, now in the NFL, won the 2004 Heisman Trophy and Barkley could win it this year.
Santos had played quarterback on the varsity as a freshman at Los Altos High School, but said he changed his mind about playing football because of the commute of 1 hour 15 minutes from his home.
“I decided to focus on baseball,” he said.
And once his focus became pitching, his dreams came true.
Santos blew six saves last year, and he can’t explain why five of them came in home games. But he established a major-league record with 25 consecutive runless appearances on the road.
And, for what it’s worth, Santos was perfect in 10 save opportunities against the American League East clubs he will now spend the majority of his time facing.
The Jays acquired him from Chicago on Dec. 6 for right-handed starter Nestor Molina, who pitched great last year for Class-A Dunedin and then Double-A New Hampshire.
It will be an interesting trade to follow in regard to who gets the best of the deal in the long run.
“I’m here to help this team win now,” Santos said. “We have a young, energetic team, and we believe we can contend in the AL East.
“We have a no-fear approach.”
Spoken like a true closer.
Special to The Globe and Mail