Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sergio Santos returns to Toronto

The Blue Jays have found their closer. He's not named Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, or Huston Street, but his name should still be familar to Blue Jays fans. Sergio Santos. Santos is a former 1st round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and was traded to the Blue Jays in December of 2005 along side Troy Glaus in exchange for Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista. He played parts of two seasons in the Blue Jays system before being claimed on waivers in May 2008 by the Minnesota Twins.

He played the remainder of the 2008 season with the Twins, but continued to struggle at the plate. The Twins granted him his release at the end of the season, and Santos found himself a home with the White Sox. Or at least he thought he did. The White Sox traded him to the San Francisco Giants in March 2009, but by April, he was back with the White Sox. Needless to say, he's a very well travelled man.

After being reacquired by Chicago, both he and the team decided it would be best to make a position switch. Santos is a big bodied man at 6'2", 230 lbs, and was always a little large for shortstop. However, instead of moving him to third base, the White Sox converted him to a relief pitcher, where his powerful arm could truly be on display.

To the surprise of no one, Santos' first year as a pitcher didn't go smoothly. He pitched in 26 games across four levels between Single-A and Triple-A, posting an 8.16 ERA and 1.99 WHIP. There were some positive signs, however, as Santos put together a 9.42 K/9, frequently overmatching hitters with his power fastball. The most surprising aspect of his debut pitching season was the life on his slider. Given his arm strength the fastball was expected, but the White Sox had no way to foresee such an impressive breaking pitch developing so quickly.

The fastball - slider combination was impressive enough that Santos earned himself an invitation to Spring Training with the White Sox. Santos appeared in 10 games (10.1 innings), striking out 16 batters despite an unimpressive 1.55 WHIP. Santos was out of options, and he showed enough that the White Sox did not want to attempt to pass him through waivers. He made the team out of the spring, and he did nothing but make the front office look brilliant in his rookie season. He continued to struggle with his WHIP (driven by an unimpressive 4.5 BB/9), but put together an outstanding 2.96 ERA fueled by 56 strikeouts in 51.2 innings.

He took his game a step further in 2011 season, and due to Bobby Jenks being granted his walking papers and Matt Thornton struggling, Santos found himself in the White Sox closer role. His walk rate (4.1 BB/9) improved slightly but was still an issue. Santos' dominance came through completely overpowering hitters when he was able to get the ball near the strikezone, causing his strikeout rate to explode to 13.1 K/9 and hit rate to plummet to 5.8 H/9. His ERA rose to 3.55, but his FIP (2.87) and xFIP (2.69) -- the numbers a pitcher can control -- were still both on the level of dominance. His impressive numbers earned him a longterm contract late in the season, as Santos signed a 3 year, 8.25M deal that includes 3 team options. As has been said many times on Twitter already, the contract almost looks like it was designed by Alex Anthopolous himself.

Santos is a primarily a two pitch pitcher. He has a 93-95 mph fastball that is capable of touching 98 mph, and uses it alongside a late-biting mid 80's power slider to dominate right handed batters to the tune of a .418 opponents OPS. He also throws a mid-to-high 80's changeup against left handed batters, but it lacks the break of his slider. Still, Santos held lefties to an impressive .628 opponents OPS in 2011, which is more than acceptable in a righty-lefty matchup. There will be no questions about who should pitch the 9th inning in 2012, even if three left handed batters are due up.

In exchange for Santos, the Blue Jays sent pitching prospect Nestor Molina to the White Sox. Molina -- who I was going to rank in the 6-10 range of my top prospect list -- is a three pitch pitcher who had downright silly statistical success in 2011. It is well documented that Molina is more of a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher, but his low 90's fastball works very well with his splitter and changeup, particularly with his plus-plus command. He absolutely has a big league future, the only questions are/were what role, and how good can he be. Many believe he will end up in the bullpen -- possibly closing -- while others believe he has the potential to be a #2 or #3 starter. I'm of the belief that he's more than capable of sticking as a starter, but I cannot fathom how people believe he will be an ace down the road. When scouting reports and statistics disagree, most often, the statistics are wrong. I wrote in the past how a lot of Molina's success could be attributed to lack of exposure, and by that I meant his inning limit. Rarely did hitters ever get to see him a third time in his starts, which is when both fatigue and hitter adjustments begin to work against the pitcher. When Molina starts consistently throwing 6 or 7 innings and 90-100 pitches, his numbers very well could take a hit.

Alex Anthopolous clearly saw this as an opportunity to trade from strength to fill a need. The Blue Jays already have a number of young and controllable pitchers in the major leagues (Romero, Morrow, Alvarez, Cecil, Drabek) and an abundance of pitchers in the minor leagues who are only one or two years away (Molina, McGuire, Hutchison, Jenkins, Wojciechowski). A road block was on the horizon, and Anthopolous chose to capitalize on his assets as opposed to letting their value diminish as they rot in the minor leagues. It's a smart move, both in the short term and in the long run. I almost have to pat myself on the back, as I predicted Nestor Molina (or Deck McGuire) as the offer in a Huston Street trade.

There's no loser in this trade, as both Toronto and Chicago got what they needed. For Toronto, they acquired a young closer without having to give ridiculous term or salary. For Chicago, they finally began a much needed rebuild, moving the first of what could be many big league pieces to inject a spark into a lifeless farm system.

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