|Friday, January 3
Updated: March 13, 5:59 PM ET
By John Sickels
Special to ESPN.com
2002 in review
What went wrong?
In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
2. Not trading Reed. Reed demanded a trade last winter when it looked like the club was doomed to extinction. But the Twins held fast, Reed eventually dropped his trade demand, and he was their best starter last year. It should be pointed out that the Reed/Matt Lawton trade of July 2001, while it was a failure at the time, turned out for the best. Lawton wouldn't have helped the Twins in '02, but Reed certainly did.
3. Making Guardado the closer. The implosion of Hawkins in the second half of '01 left the club without an established closer. Although "Everyday Eddie" is not the stereotypical hard-throwing right-handed dominator that most teams like to finish games, he did a fine job.
Looking ahead to 2003
2. DH and right field. David Ortiz has been released, and is unlikely to return due to salary considerations. Matt LeCroy could slot in nicely as the DH, especially since the Twins are looking for more pop against left-handed pitchers. In right field, the Twins seem likely to give Cuddyer a full shot at the job. He's certainly capable, but where does this leave Kielty, the club's best on-base threat?
3. The dangers of complacency. The Twins must avoid the assumption that they'll automatically win the division again; they must maintain their work ethic and drive to improve. The Twins are certainly the AL Central favorites heading into spring training, but while the youthful roster and strong farm system make the future bright, the Twins will need to show emotional maturity in order to make the transition from exciting upstarts to long-term contenders. They should take nothing for granted.
Can expect to play better
Can expect to play worse
A closer look
Santana's story begins in the Houston Astros farm system. The Astros have maintained a strong presence in Venezuela for many years. Santana signed as a free agent with them in July of 1995. In 1996, he posted a 2.70 ERA in the Dominican Summer League, then made his way to North America for the '97 season. He struggled in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, posting a 7.93 ERA in 36 innings. Still, the Astros were impressed with his physical potential. He moved up to the New York-Penn League in 1998, and pitched better, going 7-5 with a 4.36 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 87 innings. He posted similar numbers in his full-season debut in 1999, going 8-8, 4.66 in the Midwest League. His best marker was his K/BB ratio, quite good at 150/55 in 160 innings.
With four professional seasons under his belt, Santana was now eligible for the Rule 5 draft. He was selected by the Marlins in December of '99, who then traded his rights the same day to the Twins. Santana spent all of 2000 on the Twins roster, posting a 6.49 ERA in 86 innings. Projected to return to the minors for '01, he instead spent most of the season on the disabled list with an elbow injury. Despite this, he did improve his performance, lowering his ERA to 4.74. Going into 2002, Santana had a reputation as a live-armed pitcher who needed to sharpen his command and prove he could stay healthy.
Santana did all that and more in '02. His raw numbers are impressive enough: 8-6 record, 2.99 ERA, 137/49 K/BB ratio in 108.1 innings. Look at that last sentence again; Santana struck out 137 guys in 108.1 innings. Santana's strikeout rate of 11.38 per nine innings was, among pitchers with 100 or more innings, the best in the American League. In fact, in all of baseball, only five pitchers with 100 or more innings fanned more than 10 men per nine innings pitched, and only one of them, Randy Johnson, posted better numbers than Santana. Here is the Top 10 K/IP marks in the game in 2002.
Santana is in elite company.
There is more to good pitching than just striking people out, but K-rate is an excellent indicator of dominance, and is strongly correlated with future success. His other numbers showed improvement over previous seasons as well. Santana's walk rate declined from 4.88 per nine innings in '00 and '01 to 4.07 last year. His hits-per-inning and home runs ratios also improved. He held left-handed and right-handed hitters in nearly equal contempt, throttling southpaw hitters with a .195 average and .510 OPS, while righties managed .216/.631 OPS against him. He won seven of 13 starts, with a 3.13 ERA when used in the rotation. His ERA as a starter ranked eighth when compared to all American Leaguers with 10 or more starts.
All this is statistical confirmation of the filthy stuff that scouts say Santana has. His fastball has both velocity and movement, and his slider is nearly unhittable. He doesn't use his changeup as much when coming out of the bullpen, but it's a decent pitch when he breaks it out as a starter. More consistent mechanics, and greater confidence, enabled him to use his wicked stuff to get people out at a strong clip in '02, and there's no hint in his numbers that it was a fluke.
The Twins go into spring training with a Brad Radke/Eric Milton/Rick Reed/Joe Mays/Kyle Lohse rotation, with Santana pegged for further relief work. But Santana clearly has what it takes to be a very successful starting pitcher, and he'll be the first option when/if one of the starters gets hurt. The irony is that, if Santana started the season in the rotation, he'd have a very good chance to be considered the Twins true ace by the time the season was over.
If he stays healthy and makes just a minor improvement in his command, Johan Santana will be one of the best pitchers in baseball within the next two years.
John Sickels is the author of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and is now working on the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. His biography of Bob Feller will be published next spring. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at JohnSickels.com.