FORT MYERS, FLA.: Danny Santana has excellent range and a strong arm. He is agile, can be acrobatic and can turn a double play. Everything he does on an infield screams shortstop.
There might not be a position on a baseball field with a brighter spotlight on it than shortstop. And maybe the spotlight was just too bright for Santana, as talented as he is. He made too many mistakes. He missed too many plays.
“When I play in the infield, there are a lot of things to think about,” Santana said. “I try hard, but I have to think about a lot.”
So the Twins told the 25-year-old Santana to report to spring training planning to spend a lot of time in center field. The Twins aren’t retiring his shortstop glove just yet, as Santana, who is out of minor league options, can contribute off the bench as a backup infielder and outfielder or pinch runner. And, if Byron Buxton has a poor spring or is injured, Santana could end up as their Opening Day center fielder.
“There certainly is a position for a guy like him because he can do so many things,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “He switch-hits. He certainly can cause a lot of havoc on the bases. I would hope he would take advantage of that situation this year.”
The decision comes after Santana tantalized everyone with a 2014 rookie season in which he batted .319 in 101 games with seven home runs, 40 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 24 attempts. A switch-hitter, he seemed to be the Twins’ next top-of-the-order specialist. But the warning signs were that he walked only 19 times in 430 plate appearances and led everyone with at least 400 plate appearances with a .405 batting average on balls put into play — which meant seemingly everything he touched turned into a hit.
And Santana came crashing back to earth last season. He hit only .218 in his first 49 games before being demoted to Class AAA Rochester in early June. He returned toward the end of the month but hit .217 over a 25-game span and was sent down again. The Twins turned to Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez at short down the stretch, with Escobar eventually hitting his way into most of the playing time.
With Escobar given the shortstop job for this season already, the Twins need to find a role for Santana.
Santana played 68 games in center field in 2014, as the Twins needed him in an emergency role. He batted .316 with an .843 on base-plus-slugging percentage while playing there. As a shortstop, he batted .295 with a .716 OPS. Those splits got the Twins thinking.
“I think there is a little more comfort [in center field]for him,” manager Paul Molitor said. “We saw it two years ago. Last year was a combination of things that caused him to go backwards a little bit. I have a handful of people that I try to have conversations with before full-squad workouts. I tried to draw a picture for Danny and get his input on the best way to make our team and help our team.
“We’re not going to abandon the infield. I think the more he can do in the short term, and with injuries and all that, we know he’s athletic enough. In terms of skill set, he has higher one than most people at this camp or right at the top. It’s just a matter of how he is going to rebound from adversity from last year.”
Others have transitioned
Santana can look up and down the roster for teammates who can empathize with him. Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe were shortstops who had to find their niche elsewhere. Miguel Sano is embracing a move to right field because Plouffe is at third. Joe Mauer is at first because he can no longer catch.
“However it shakes out, he could be a guy like a Josh Harrison [of the Pirates]who can play multiple positions,” Dozier said. “He can run, he can hit. Stuff like that, because we all know he can play center. We all know he can play the infield. Just how he turns that corner in terms of slowing the game down. This might help that, to really not have to factor at one position.”
If Santana can show versatility, he could be a valuable player for the Twins. He definitely likes the idea of playing more outfield.
“Right now I feel like I’ve played out there for a long time,” Santana said. “I’m very excited. I have a lot of things to do. I need to compete now and I want to make the team. I have a lot of things I can do to help the team.”
As an outfielder, Santana might be at the best position to show off all this talents.
“Sometimes you get a player a little farther away from the ball and all of a sudden they are relaxed, they take better at-bats,” Ryan said. “It’s amazing how that happens.”