DUNEDIN, FLA. - When last he trod this baseball facility in the spring of 2008, Sergio Santos was counting on his glove and his bat to catapult him to the major leagues.
The other day, he rode in a cab from Tampa Airport to Dunedin to report to the Blue Jays as their bullpen closer, and all those memories came rushing back. A former first-round draft choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Santos was a power-hitting shortstop. He came to the Blue Jays along with Troy Glaus in December of 2005 and spent two full seasons and parts of another trying to develop the consistency that would get him to The Show.
“Riding in, a lot of stuff came back to me,” said Santos. “Seeing the city brought it all back.”
In May of 2008, Santos was claimed on waivers by the Minnesota Twins, but there was no opening there. Eight months later, he was signed by the Chicago White Sox as a free agent. Early in the 2009 season, he was traded to San Francisco, then a few days later, traded back when that roster spot dried up.
“Tools-wise, I thought I could compete with anybody. What separated me from the guys who were in the big leagues was consistency. They were able to do it all season and I couldn’t do that and I couldn’t figure out why.”
As a shortstop, one of Santos’ chief attributes was a gun for an arm. Chicago’s farm director, Buddy Bell, thought that arm might be worth a look from the mound.
“Buddy was the one who first brought it up to me with the White Sox when he asked me if I would be interested in pitching,” said Santos. “It kind of blew me away at first. I’m thinking, “I’m a third baseman/shortstop. What’s going on here?
“But when I thought about it, it made sense. I had given (shortstop) a good five or six years of really trying and I was in Triple A for four years. I just thought to myself, ‘If it wasn’t clicking by then, what’s going to change?’ ”
The truth is, nothing was going to change. His best-before date as a prospect had passed. The one way he was going to have a life in baseball was as a pitcher. So he bought in and went to begin the conversion in Class A.
“What’s funny,” says Santos now, “just being naive, I remember asking Buddy, ‘Am I going to have a chance to be in the big leagues, like, this year?’ He kind of looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I’m like, ‘Can you move me up quick? Hey, I’ve got a family, I’ve got stuff to do.’ And he said, ‘I think it’s going to take a little bit longer than you think.’ ”
So early in the 2009 season, he found himself in Kannapolis, N.C., as one of the Intimidators, Chicago’s affiliate in the South Atlantic League
“As soon as I started pitching, I threw away all that doubt and said this is what I’m doing, this is what I’m going to commit myself to,” he said. “It was tough, with a wife and two kids. I had a lot going on and I’m there with a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old kids in low A ball.”
As it turns out, Santos’ original estimate for a quick turnaround wasn’t that far off. Even with some early struggles, he didn’t last long in A ball — or in Double A. By season’s end, he had been through four levels, all the way up to Triple A. When he was assigned to the Arizona Fall League for further grooming, Santos set his sights on winning a job with the White Sox the next spring.
“The toughest transition was in trying to get my off-speed pitches over the plate to keep the hitters from teeing off on my 97-98 mph fastball,” he said. “I had no command at all of my breaking pitches and only a little bit with the fastball.”
But all that came fast. He appeared in 56 games with the Sox in 2010 and then, when Bobby Jenks signed with the Red Sox in the off-season, Santos became the primary, though not the only, closer in 2011 and ran off 30 saves in 36 opportunities.
When Alex Anthopoulos was able to exchange minor-leaguer Nestor Molina for Santos, it came out of the blue to everyone in the game, including Santos. He had just signed a three-year, $8.5 million extension, with club options for three more years with the Sox.
Once the shock wore off, he realized he was coming to a very good situation with a young team on the rise, with a clearly defined role.
“I know my role,” he said. “When I get to the sixth or seventh inning, I can start planning my routine. In Chicago, it was always kind of tough because the situations were dictating whether I was going in or (Matt) Thornton or (Chris) Sale was going in. This is nice to have that secure job.”
Santos has written a remarkable story, when you consider how dead his career was just three years ago. From a point where he was nearly out of the game, he has parlayed his best asset into financial security for life.