FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins have gushed about starting pitching prospects, potential middle-of-the-order mashers and the talented outfielders in their farm system. Yet the phrase “shortstop of the future” rarely has been uttered since Jason Bartlett’s first go-round with the club.
Danny Santana, however, gives them hope of a long-term solution at shortstop — and someone who could pop up in manager Ron Gardenhire’s lineup sometime this season.
Thanks to a blend of skill, athleticism and maturity, the coaching staff is beginning to believe that the 23-year-old is nearly ready for prime time.
“I think he is one of our better-looking infielders,” Gardenhire said.
Santana is 4-for-11 at the plate this spring, with two of those hits coming Monday, when he tripled from each side of the plate during a victory over the Orioles in Sarasota, Fla. Everyone at Ed Smith Stadium that day saw how Santana can impact a game as he blazed around the bases on his triples. He also has a good range and very strong arm. The tools are there, and Santana is figuring out how to use them.
Santana flashed a bright smile when asked if he felt he could help the major league team.
“Yes,” said Santana, who is scheduled to play Friday against the Pirates in Bradenton. “I think I’m ready for that.”
Pedro Florimon’s appendicitis has put some doubt into whether he will be ready for Opening Day. Florimon, last year’s starter, took grounders at short (but didn’t do much throwing) and hit in the cage Wednesday, but he remains several days away from playing in a spring training game.
If Florimon isn’t ready, that leaves Eduardo Escobar and Doug Bernier as the only players in camp who played shortstop in the majors last season. While Escobar and Jason Bartlett — on the comeback trail following 1½ years away from the game — look to be the best short-term options, Santana could be the long-term solution at short if he continues to develop.
Since Bartlett was traded to Tampa Bay before the 2008 season, the Twins have used 14 players at shortstop. Santana offers hope for stability.
Santana, signed out of the Dominican Republic at 17, has raised his batting average in each of the past three seasons, from .247 at Class A Beloit in 2011 to .286 at Class A Fort Myers in 2012 to .297 at Class AA New Britain last year. He batted .235 last April but hit .314 for the Rock Cats after that. Santana then hit .311 for Aguilas of the Dominican Winter League, playing for former major league shortstop Felix Fermin.
“I like him a lot,” Gardenhire said of Santana. “He’s as advertised. He can fly, plays shortstop, has a good swing. He’s got a cannon. He’s got all the tools. Now it is just a matter of if he harnesses everything.”
Consistency has kept Santana from moving up the Twins prospect list. Sometimes he has been the best player on the field. Other times he has looked raw. But the surge in his batting average in the past two seasons has club officials believing he has turned the corner. He once played like he was in a rush to make plays and ended up making mistakes. Now he is more composed.
His next step is to improve his plate discipline. Santana walked only 24 times in 587 plate appearances last year. Someone with his wheels needs to get on base so he can use them.
He also needs to be more consistent in the field. Santana made 39 errors last season, but Twins officials believe that number will decline with experience and maturity.
“It’s been a lot of fun watching Danny,” said Brad Steil, the Twins director of minor league operations. “He’s really grown up a lot. The second half of last year he really improved a lot from the first half in terms of consistency and finishing those routine plays that have given him trouble over time. As a person he’s grown up and matured.”
That includes trying to learn English. Although Wilkin Ramirez was available to translate for him, Santana wanted to try to conduct an interview session this week without any help.
“I have to make every routine play,” he said.
“I must play hard and swing at good pitches.”