- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The first time that Sergio Santos took the mound in front of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams and the Chicago staff last spring, he could sense their enthusiasm for what they were watching, for the heavy, boring fastball that he was throwing in the mid-90s.
But Santos wasn't that excited. He wasn't really sure how he felt.
To understand why, you need to know that Santos was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round of the 2002 draft, as a shortstop. He reached Triple-A in 2005, just one step away from the majors. But that would be the first of five consecutive seasons for Santos at that level, and he moved from the D-backs' organization to Toronto to the Twins and back to Toronto, accumulating 3,145 at-bats.
He had always been a position player, had always thought of himself as a position player and had always envisioned himself being in the big leagues as an infielder. In 2008, Santos had hit .228 with five homers in 112 games, and so last spring, the White Sox posed a question to Santos that the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays and Twins had brought up before: What do you think about the idea of pitching?
Santos' throwing arm had always been one of his best assets, as an infielder. But he did not have much experience pitching beyond Little League. Santos had served as a closer for his high school briefly in his freshman year, but when he got a sore arm, his father told him to put the pitching behind him and focus on his work as an infielder.
But Santos' status with the White Sox was tenuous, so he agreed to throw a bullpen session. And Williams and pitching coach Don Cooper and others were extremely pleased with what they saw. Santos had a great fastball, and the slider that he showed -- using a grip that he had sometimes used to mess with first basemen as he loosened up between innings -- showed real promise. His mechanics were simple, workable. The White Sox were ready to convert him immediately. We want you to be a pitcher, he was told.
"It was a hard decision, because all along, you're preparing [as a position player] and you're this close," Santos said Friday.
So Santos balked at the suggestion, and after talking over his options with Buddy Bell, the farm director for the White Sox, Santos was traded to the San Francisco Giants. He wanted to continue on as a position player.
But not long after joining the Giants, he was told that he probably wouldn't have an every-day job in the minor leagues. He was ready to try pitching, and so the White Sox made a deal for him with the idea of switching him. "I kind of made up my mind that as much as I've tried to have it work out as a position player, it just wasn't working," said Santos. "There was a lot of soul-searching."
The White Sox didn't think there was a lot of tinkering to be done with his pitching mechanics. They wanted him to work from the stretch, limiting the possible mechanical complications and allowing him to focus on using his fastball. After throwing in bullpen sessions, Santos got into a game in extended spring training and immediately discovered how different pitching was with a hitter standing in the box, with the adrenaline rushing through. "I was naive," he said. "When I was first out there, I threw something like 27 pitches in the first inning, and I was thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
But Santos felt comfortable in the role of reliever. When Trevor Hoffman was converted from shortstop to reliever as a minor leaguer, he realized, in retrospect, that the pressure to generate hits had gnawed at him -- a hitless game might be followed by another hitless game, and suddenly he would be in a slump and his anxiety would wear on him. Pitching suited his personality better.
Santos has had similar feelings. As a position player, he felt he struggled for consistency, feeling frustration when one good month was wiped away by a bad month.
Failure is inherent for hitters in a way that it isn't in a lot of sports; a good hitter makes an out in seven of 10 at-bats. But even a struggling pitcher will retire hitters most of
the time. "It's easier to stay positive," said Santos. "I like the idea that I have somewhat more control."
In the big picture, he is thriving now: During the week ahead, he will reach the one-year anniversary of that first day that he threw in the bullpen for the White Sox staff, and he is on track right now to open the season in the majors.
Santos pitched in 26 games last summer, generating an 8.16 ERA, with 30 strikeouts and 20 walks in 28 2/3 innings. But Santos, 26, gained more consistency in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 6.14 ERA and striking out 20 in 14 2/3 innings, and he has had more command this spring.
The White Sox kept him on their 40-man roster through the winter, and because he is out of options -- those were burned up in his time as a position player -- the White Sox either have to keep him in the major leagues or risk losing his promising power arm through a waiver claim. "To me, all of this has been the biggest blessing in disguise," Santos said. "I've gone through so many ups and downs. But there's no doubt in my mind that I am going to be successful as a pitcher."
Some interesting spring numbers
.400 -- That's the spring average of Sean Rodriguez.
.450 -- That's the batting average of Austin Jackson, who came into camp amid questions from some evaluators about whether he'll hit enough to be a good major leaguer. It's a nice first step for him.
.400 -- The on-base percentage of Julio Borbon this spring. He is poised to have a big year.
8 -- The number of strikeouts for Roy Halladay, over five walkless and scoreless innings.
Dings and dents
1. White Sox prospect Jared Mitchell could be out for the year, Dave van Dyck writes.
3. With their core players all hurt, the Mets seem to be crumbling, writes Bill Rhoden. Without Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran, the Mets are facing lineup issues, Adam Rubin writes. Their lineup could look something like this:
Angel Pagan, CF
Luis Castillo, 2B
David Wright, 3B
Jason Bay, LF
Daniel Murphy, 1B
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Rod Barajas, C
Ruben Tejada, SS
And remember: The Mets play a ton of good teams in the first quarter of the season.
11. The Rangers aren't fretting about Ian Kinsler's ankle roll.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The definition of a closer is a strikeout guy, says Ron Gardenhire, in answering questions about who might take over as Twins closer if Joe Nathan cannot go forward. You wonder if that takes Matt Guerrier out of the mix, because as good as he is, Guerrier is really not a strikeout guy. Francisco Liriano, by the way, must look like an intriguing option, because he is pitching tremendously this spring, Joe Christensen writes.
2. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg wants a balanced schedule and more teams in the playoffs.
3. Doug Baker's World Series ring sold for $12,322.
4. Some talent evaluators are saying that the phone calls and conversations that lead to trades really haven't started yet. "I'd say that'll happen in another week or so, like clockwork," said one scout. "Everybody wants to get a sense of their own team and their own needs, and who they're going to move, before they start talking trade."
5. The Cubs intend to send Starlin Castro to Triple-A, and Aramis Ramirez politely disagrees with the philosophy behind that thinking, Paul Sullivan writes.
6. The Cubs are interested in an extension if Lou Piniella is interested, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.
7. A Royals reliever is making his case to be on the team, writes Bob Dutton.
8. Some payroll savings after this year should put the Tigers in a good position. Between the contracts coming off the books (like those of Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis et al.) and the young power pitching that the Tigers have, Detroit should be set up pretty well, moving forward.
The fight for jobs
3. A Jays prospect is hopeful, writes Morgan Campbell.
4. Jeff Zrebiec takes a look at the battle for jobs in the Baltimore bullpen.
From the mailbag
I am wondering if you think Gary Sheffield will land somewhere? It seems like he's too good a hitter to be snubbed, especially since he should be a relatively cheap acquisition. Also he's apparently been working out full bore in the offseason, so it would seem he'd be a low-risk signing.
Frank: Teams say that Sheffield was looking for assurance about what kind of role he would have. He did not want to settle for a role that was only about pinch-hitting, and there was no sense among the evaluators that I've talked to that Sheff would be willing to go to the minors. Ultimately, it comes down to the question of how much the player wants to be in the big leagues in spite of the role or the money that he's making. As we saw with Pedro Martinez last year -- and will again this year -- it's possible for veterans to sit and wait for the right situation to pop up even during the season. If Sheffield did that, it wouldn't be a surprise. And at this point, if he never played another game, that wouldn't be a surprise, either, after 2,689 career hits, 509 homers, 1,003 extra-base hits and an extraordinary walk/strikeout ratio of 1,475-to-1,171. He's a proud guy.
• Alex Anthopoulos is opening this season with clarity.
• The Pirates' rotation is off to a slow start, writes Dejan Kovacevic.
• Dontrelle Willis is thankful for what he has.
• The D-backs' offense is showing signs of improvement, writes Nick Piecoro.
• Mets manager Jerry Manuel is a true believer, writes Mike Vaccaro.
• The Nationals are better, but they're not showing it yet, writes Thomas Boswell.
• David Murphy is biding his time on the Rangers' bench, writes Anthony Andro.
• There are unsafe pitching conditions in the majors right now, rights Bruce Jenkins.
• The Dodger Stadium shuttles are back.
• Jim Kaat has some advice for those pitchers who are working with the slider.
• Vanderbilt beat Georgia, with a freshman leading the way, and now it gets Mississippi State on Saturday in the SEC semis; the Commodores could be looking at a No. 4 seed if they win this sucker.
The weather is supposed to be outstanding today in Florida.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Shortstop-turned-pitcher Sergio Santos is on track to open the season with the Chicago White Sox.