Santos starting over with Jays -- as closer
Former infield prospect returns with high expectations
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Sergio Santos couldn't help but have a sense of deja vu when he arrived at Spring Training this week.
Toronto's biggest acquisition of the offseason had been down this road before, as a once promising shortstop prospect with aspirations of making the Major Leagues.
Santos begins his second stint with the organization under much different circumstances than his previous go-around. The converted infielder now makes his living on the mound, and will take over as the Blue Jays' undisputed closer just three years removed from his days as a position player.
"It was so weird, the cab in from my flight, seeing the city, seeing everything again," Santos said of his arrival. "Then, especially, not being in the hitting group with the guys. I just get to throw, come in and leave. It's nicer, but it's definitely a weird feeling."
Santos' professional career began in 2002, when he was selected 27th overall in the Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. One year later, he was ranked the 37th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, but he never quite lived up to expectations at the plate.
The California native hit just .239 with Triple-A Tucson in 2005. Following that season, he was included in the trade that brought third baseman Troy Glaus to Toronto. Santos peaked in 2007 with a 20-home run season in Triple-A Syracuse, but his patience and batting average never saw much of an increase, which led to him becoming a journeyman in the Minor Leagues.
Santos spent time with the Twins, White Sox and Giants before finally deciding to give pitching a try at the request of Chicago's director of player development, Buddy Bell. The success came soon thereafter, as Santos advanced through three levels of the Minor Leagues in 2009 before making his Major League debut in 2010.
"To get offspeed pitches over consistent enough for hitters to bite at," Santos said of his biggest challenge in making the transition. "Keeping them honest with a 96-97 mph fastball, they have to think about that, so when you can get a slider over for a strike, or a changeup, just put another pitch in their mind. It makes it so much easier.
"That was always tough, because my sliders and changeups early were always out of the zone and guys were never swinging at them, so they were just teeing off on my fastball. So that was tough, just being able to control my offspeed pitches."
Santos appears to have solved all of those issues following two successful years as a reliever, and he will be relied upon to become a stabilizing influence at the back end of Toronto's bullpen. That was something Toronto didn't have for the majority of the 2011 season, as the club tied for the American League lead with 25 blown saves.
The ninth-inning job now solely belongs to Santos and the clearly-defined situation should help ease the burden on manager John Farrell. There will be no second-guessing who should take the ball in close games, which also puts Santos' mind at ease as he prepares for the start of the year.
"It's nice, because now I know my role," Santos said. "I know, ok, the game is going to dictate when I start locking in. So once the sixth or seventh innings hit, if it's a close game, my mind starts going about, 'Ok, when you get into the ninth, this is what you're going to do.'
"In Chicago, it was kind of tough because if there's a lefty up, am I going in? ... So this is nice to have that secure job, knowing that this is my role, this is what I have to do, so I can prepare for it."
Santos enjoyed a breakout season with the White Sox in 2011 by posting a 4-5 record with a 3.55 ERA, while recording 30 saves in 35 opportunities. He struck out 92 batters in just 63 1/3 innings and held the opposition to a measly .181 average.
The 28-year-old was expected to be a major component of Chicago's future, as evidenced by a three-year contract extension he signed in late September. But less than three months later, he was on the move in a trade for pitching prospect Nestor Molina as part of the White Sox's rebuilding effort.
Santos' availability came as somewhat of a surprise to the Blue Jays, but they jumped all over the deal when presented with the opportunity.
"The physical abilities are very tangible and measureable," Farrell said. "The fact that he emerged as a closer, that he was young in that position, that we had six years of control with him. We felt like he can [solidify] that ninth inning spot and build to him.
"He was a little bit more of a known commodity coming into camp after the trade than trying to search for that guy and seeing who would evolve out of a group of three, rather than knowing this is the guy we're going with."
If there was any disappointment in Chicago's decision to send him packing, Santos wasn't showing it on Tuesday. Instead, the enthusiastic reliever held court with a group of reporters and went over what excited him most about joining the new team.
There were familiar faces such as Ricky Romero and Jason Frasor, while the overall talent in the club's young core has Santos expecting big things this season.
"The moves they were making, the talented guys that they had, you can't help but get excited," Santos said. "When I came over, the more I was looking at the roster, the more I was kind of liking what I was seeing.
"(The starters are) young, they're fresh, they're motivated, they have stuff to prove and that's what you want. You want guys that are going to fight for each other and have each other's backs. Ricky is a great leader to show these guys the way and they're talented, so whenever you have young talent it's tough to find out what you're going to get but you know you're going to get good stuff."