The Rise of Ramon Santiago

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Utilityman Ramon Santiago has been through ups and downs during his 10-year major league career. After performing reasonably well as a part-timer in 2002, he was the starting shortstop at age 23 the next year. Unfortunately, Santiago, like many of his teammates with the 2003 Detroit Tigers, wasn’t quite ready for prime time and turned in a sub-par season.

In an effort to get better quickly, the Tigers acquired shortstop Carlos Guillen from Seattle that winter, in exchange, Detroit sent Santiago and a minor leaguer to the Mariners. After two years of shuttling back and forth from Triple-A, the Mariners released the young switch-hitter. The Tigers wasted little time in bringing him back to Detroit.

Santiago has been a fixture of the Tigers roster ever since, but rarely has he been given an honest chance at being an everyday player again. He’s too small to play everyday, his body will break down. There are too many holes in his game; holes that reveal themselves if he is overexposed. Those were the arguments for keeping Santiago firmly entrenched in his utility role. The success that he did have in his limited action was used as fuel for those arguments instead of disproving them. He plays better when he’s not out there everyday, they said.

The problem with all that, from a fan’s perspective, is that apart from the lousy 2003 team, Santiago was never given a chance to prove he could be an everyday player.

This year, the Tigers opened the season with Will Rhymes manning second base, when Rhymes was sent to the minors it was Scott Sizemore‘s turn at the job. Sizemore was traded away and Ryan Raburn got the lion’s share of the at bats at second base. All of these guys were simply keeping the spot warm until Guillen could return and reclaim his starting job at second. Guillen came off the shelf just after the all-star break, but didn’t hit all that well. In mid-August, less than a month after being activated, Guillen was hurt again. This time, Santiago was called upon to play in a platoon with Raburn at second, but it didn’t take long before Santiago’s bat got hot and that, coupled with his superior glovework, moved him to the top of the Tigers’ depth chart at long last.

Santiago has played in 23 of the club’s last 25 games, usually starting three or four in a row before getting a break for a few innings in the next game, only to be called upon as a defensive replacement. The Tigers are 17-6 in the 23 games in which Santiago has played. Now a seasoned veteran, Santiago has been red-hot over the past month. He’s posted a .303 average, .364 OBP, and .924 OPS in his last 80 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs this season, including a two-run shot to give the Tigers a 6-4 lead last night, have come in those last 23 games.

Guillen was activated from the DL on September 1, but he’s only played in two games since then and gotten just one start. Raburn has also seen a drastic reduction in his playing time of late as Santiago has stolen the job out from under both men.

Santiago is a feel-good story for sure; a smaller-than-average ballplayer who has sneaky power and a flair for the dramatic. But if he wasn’t hitting, he wouldn’t be playing. Rhymes won the Opening Day job this year because of how well he hit at the end of the 2010 season. Let’s hope Jim Leyland gives the same consideration to Santiago when Spring Training rolls around next year. He’s finally getting his second chance at a starting job, and he’s more than taking advantage of it.

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