FORT MYERS, FLA. – Scouts now regularly scour Latin America for the best young baseball talent but, somehow, most of them pretty much ignored Danny Santana in 2007 when it was his time to sign with a team and chase the dream.
“One of the first things they are going to do are the projectables,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ scouting director at the time who was about to be promoted to vice president in charge of player personnel. “What is the [prospect’s] body going to be like?”
So the players with size, or who are projected to add size, or throw hard or have a mean curveball are pursued — and paid the big bucks. Ask Santana why he wasn’t a big-time prospect at the time and he raises his eyebrows.
“I was skinny,” said Santana, who was born in Monte Plata, Dominican Republic.
“He might not have even been 130 pounds then,” Radcliff said.
It’s hard to believe that when Santana — now beefed up to 175 pounds — leaves a jet stream as he rounds the bases, throws a laser to first base or drives a pitch for an extra-base hit.
Santana batted .319 with 27 doubles, seven triples, seven home runs and 20 stolen bases after being called up on May 5 last season, helping revive the Twins lineup into a unit that had the third-most runs scored in the American League after the All-Star break. Santana is one of the reasons the Twins hope to show continued improvement this season.
And to think the Twins signed him in December of 2007 for a modest $37,000.
About seven months later, Oakland signed a towering 6-7 pitcher named Michael Ynoa to a then-record $4.25 million bonus. The righthander has not pitched above Class A ball. Scouting is an inexact science.
Santana was summoned to the Twins to play shortstop last summer, but ended up in center field most of the time because the Twins were in crisis mode to fill the position and he had played a few games there while coming through the system. That just revealed what kind of athlete he is.
“I don’t know why, but Robin Yount’s name keeps coming up,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor, Yount’s buddy with the Brewers. “MVP at center field and shortstop. It’s a rare gift set when a guy can excel at those two positions. For [Santana] to be able to step up last year and do what he did, there was a learning curve up there but obviously when you have a chance to settle in at a position defensively, it helps your overall game.
“It’s not a lot of athletes that you can expect to be able to fill those two holes.”
Skills stand out
Different things stand out to teammates about Santana.
Santana, 24, has fast hands that allow him to adjust to breaking balls at the last possible instant.
“He has some of the quickest hands I have ever seen,” Twins first baseman Joe Mauer said. “He’s able to wait on those pitches, then fire on them. He’s going to be a good hitter … he is a good hitter.”
Torii Hunter noticed Santana last season when he was with the Tigers and playing against his former team.
“His plate presence,” Hunter said. “He battled at the plate — reminded me of [former Twins shortstop] Cristian Guzman a little bit, maybe better. Whenever they needed a hit or baserunner, he was the one who would get on base. If you made a mistake, he would hit it hard.”
Brian Dozier was the first to draw an eye-opening comparison to Jose Reyes when he saw Santana play last spring.
“He impacts the game,” Dozier said. “He’s got a gift and can do a lot of things with the bat.”
Santana never really had a big offensive season in the minors, although team officials began to think Santana had a chance to be really good when he was in Class A.
“It was when he was at Fort Myers,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “We put him on the [40-man] roster, and we had people questioning why we would do that. His skills stand out. He can really run, he can really throw. He’s got the strength. He’s a switch hitter. He can drive a baseball. So we put him on.”
Santana batted .286 at Class A Fort Myers in 2012, then .297 at Class AA New Britain in 2013. Santana also drove the Twins nuts with inconsistency — particularly in the field, when he would flub routine plays.
An obvious sign of encouragement is that when he reached the majors, there was no dropoff from his minor league numbers. He debuted May 5 against Cleveland as a pinch runner, but stayed in the game and singled off Cody Allen for his first major league hit. Santana said he was nervous for about two weeks, but soon believed he could play on an MLB level.
“My goals for this season is to be the same,” said Santana, whose English is improving. “Just a couple more walks, a couple more stolen bases. Those are the only goals I want for this season.”
Room to grow
Santana still has things to work on. He will have to prove he can be reliable in the field. He gets in trouble when he tries to do things in a hurry instead staying under control.
“He’s gifted,” said Dozier, who was signed for $30,000 in 2009, giving the Twins a $67,000 middle infield. “He’s got some of the quickest hands and footwork I’ve ever seen. You challenge him when we work together to be in sync. Practice on slowing everything down.”
And will the Twins remain committed to keeping Santana at shortstop? If Aaron Hicks doesn’t earn center field and Eduardo Escobar continues to hit, will they consider putting Escobar at short and return to Santana to center field? So far, all of Santana’s work in this camp has been at shortstop, a clear sign that’s where the Twins want him to settle in.
Offensively, he might have been living large last season. His .405 batting average on balls put into play would have led baseball if he qualified for the league leaders. Scouts will focus on him even more, looking for holes in his swing to exploit.
The Twins are convinced Santana will continue to improve, the way he has since the club took a $37,000 flyer on a skinny little infielder.
“I think we all think he’s going to continue to grow in terms of the dynamics of his offensive game,” Molitor said. “One thing a lot of players face, although his wasn’t a full season, when you’re up here the first time, you might have been projected and there’s some expectation there. But now that you’ve accomplished certain things, even for a short time, the bar has been raised. The old sophomore jinx for me is the guys that, all of a sudden now, they have to aspire to do what they did in the past. I have a lot of confidence in that kid. He’s a really good listener and applier.”