FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins have not had a shortstop with solid credentials to be a regular since J.J. Hardy was brought in for the 2010 season in a trade for Carlos Gomez. They also had a reliable utility infielder in Nick Punto for that season.
That was needed, since Hardy was often injured and started 95 games in what was a division-winning, 94-victory debut season in Target Field.
Bad things followed.
Hardy went to Baltimore in a horrible trade, Punto left as a free agent, Tsuyoshi Nishioka arrived without major league skills, the victory total plummeted to 63 in 2011 and Bill Smith was fired as general manager.
Six years later, there is a new baseball boss in Derek Falvey, Paul Molitor is entering his third season as manager and a revised Twins standard for on-field futility (59-103 in 2016) has been established.
What hasn’t changed is that Hardy still is the shortstop in Baltimore, and the Twins still are looking for one with solid credentials.
There was much hope early in this decade that they had an everyday shortstop on the way in Danny Santana. He was a 20-year-old switch hitter at Class A Beloit in 2011, and he had seven home runs, 41 RBI and 24 stolen bases.
Molitor was a roving instructor in the minor leagues at the time. Asked about the young Santana, the manager said:
“I thought he had a really good chance to be a major league shortstop. You never assume that’s going to happen, but being around as much as I was … I thought eventually we were going to get a little more polish.
“His body was so alive it almost worked against him — to smooth it out was challenging.”
Santana’s status as a prospect increased in 2012 at Class A Fort Myers and 2013 at Class AA New Britain. Considering Pedro Florimon’s weak bat and Eduardo Escobar’s marginal fielding, Santana was probably the best all-around shortstop in spring training of 2014.
General Manager Terry Ryan optioned Santana to the minors in mid-March, before he could get any serious lobbying on Santana’s behalf from manager Ron Gardenhire.
Center fielder Aaron Hicks was injured and Santana was recalled on May 3. On May 25, Gardenhire started him for the second time in center field, and he basically stayed there. He was named the Twins Rookie of the Year and finished seventh for the American League award.
That started what remains a question with Danny Santana, now 26 and coming off a terrible, injury-plagued season: Is he an outfielder or a shortstop?
“The team thinks I am most valuable by playing a few positions,” Santana said this week. “I agree with that. I love playing shortstop. It’s where I grew up playing. But if I can play six positions …”
Santana shrugged slightly, a shrug that could be interpreted thusly:
In an era of frequent three-player benches in the American League, a player who can run, switch hit and perform adequately at second, shortstop, third and all around the outfield would be a tough roster cut for a team to make.
The Twins have Santana listed as an outfielder. Center field will belong to Byron Buxton in 2017, with Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. Toss in Santana as your supersub in the outfield and that’s it, right?
Apparently not. Robbie Grossman is back as a veteran outfielder, and two others, Drew Stubbs and J.B. Shuck, were brought to camp.
The theory here is the Twins might be better off throwing Santana into the shortstop competition — with Jorge Polanco, Escobar and Ehire Adrianza — rather than have him chasing fly balls this spring.
Polanco is the projected starter, but in the middle of last season, he was playing second base in Rochester and was projected as a non-shortstop for the big leagues. Escobar had a poor season in 2016, and Adrianza’s history suggests he is Florimon II.
The gifts that once foresaw Santana as an everyday shortstop are still there. Did his nervous, failed attempt to seize the position at the start of 2015 end any thought of that?
“I’m prioritizing outfield for him a bit now, but we also want him to get out early in the morning and do some extra infield work,” Molitor said.
Santana played a month of winter ball in the Dominican this offseason. Shortstop? Danny shook his head and said: “Second and center field.”
He was asked if being a utility player in the big leagues rather than developing into an everyday shortstop comes as a surprise?
“The biggest thing is the minors and majors; it’s a whole different thing playing shortstop in the majors,” he said.
Santana had a shoulder injury from a collision with Grossman and two hamstring pulls that removed him from the lineup last season.
Much worse, he had a heavy heart. His mother, Susana Guzman, was thought to be in remission from cancer, and then it reoccurred last summer. She died at Thanksgiving.
“It is life,” Santana said. “She is gone from me now, but I will always think about her.”