Closing Thoughts: Hector Santiago stakes his claim in the ninth

On this date in 2011, Hector Santiago was the scheduled starter for the Winston-Salem Dash, High-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The left-hander was making his first start of the  season. As a prospect, the kid wasn't on anyone's radar. He was a former 30th round draft pick entering his fifth minor league season.

That night, Santiago pitched four innings for the Dash, allowing just one run and striking out seven batters in a no-decision. On his way to that respectable strikeout total, he almost certainly mixed in a few screwballs. Santiago began experimenting with the pitch in winter ball in 2008, and he first used it in a game in Puerto Rico in 2010. When you're a 23-year-old minor league veteran who can't seem to escape Single-A, it's not such a bad idea to tweak the pitching arsenal.

Santiago discussed his introduction to the screwball in a recent interview with's Scott Merkin:

"I didn't really have a change-up at the time, so it was like, 'Why not? Let's try it.' It kind of came along more as a change-up and made my change-up a lot better. Over time, I got to the point where I could get my arm into that motion where I could turn it over pretty well."


"There was big drop to it. It was kind of like a curve ball. It had some fade and drop."

When Santiago throws the screwball to a right-hander, it can be a knee-buckler, breaking down and away. It's a rarely seen pitch — tough to master, stressful on the arm — yet it's a significant weapon for any left-handed pitcher, an equalizer, a key to success against righties.

The list of notable big leaguers who've relied on the screwball begins with Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell (lefty), and includes Mike Cuellar (LHP), Tug McGraw (LHP), Fernando Valenzuela (LHP) and Mike Marshall (RHP). If you check the splits on those four lefties (where available), you'll find that at least two of them, Fernando and Tug, were actually tougher on RHBs than LHBs over their careers. 

It's obviously a bit premature to add Santiago's name to that distinguished group of pitchers, but we can at least appreciate what he's achieved over the past 12 months. Hector made eight early-season starts for Winston-Salem last year, striking out 43 batters in 44.0 innings, eventually earning a promotion to Birmingham, plus a July cameo appearance in Chicago. Santiago started 15 games at Double-A, posting a 3.56 ERA and maintaining a solid strikeout-rate (8.0 K/9). By the time he reported to spring training in 2012, he'd emerged as a prospect of interest in a weak system, ranking sixth in John Sickels' sweep of Chicago farmhands.

Of course the name at the top of Sickels' list (and every other list of White Sox prospects) was Addison Reed, a 23-year-old with closing-quality stuff. Reed, not Santiago, was believed to be the closer of the future. He definitely looks the part, as a hard-throwing right-hander with a wicked fastball/slider combination.

And yet somehow, in a spring where every Sox reliever pitched well, Santiago managed to leapfrog Reed, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain in the Chicago bullpen hierarchy.

No one outside the organization knew Robin Ventura's ninth inning plans heading into the season, because the rookie manager essentially treated them like nuclear launch codes. But when Santiago trotted to the mound on Saturday night in Texas to protect a one-run lead, a closer was born ... and a few thousand fantasy owners visited their league's free agent pools. Those of you who'd been paying attention to context clues had already rostered Santiago, true, but his ownership percentage really spiked over the weekend.

Now here's the big question: Can Santiago keep the job?

His price was startlingly high in industry bidding this week — $52 FAAB in AL Tout, $37 in AL LABR — but the cost was a reflection of our optimism about his ability to hold the job going forward. Santiago has converted both of his save opportunities thus far, delivering a 1-2-3 inning against the Rangers, then shutting the door in Cleveland on Monday. He already appears to have a tighter grip on his role than former White Sox closer Sergio Santos has in Toronto (more on that mess below).

[Rotowire audio: Jeff Erickson, Chris Liss and Andy Behrens discuss the bidding on Santiago]

Santiago may not have the league's longest leash, but he doesn't have the shortest, either. He isn't merely an interim closer or a committee closer; he's clearly the guy to own in this 'pen. Ventura made that much clear in his post-game comments on Saturday (via the Daily Herald):

After the game, Ventura was asked if Santiago is the White Sox' closer.

"He is," said Ventura, who was doused with beer after getting his first win as manager.


"It's just nice," Ventura said. "You get a kid like Hector Santiago, he comes in his first game … he's a tough kid. I just love the way he goes out there, his attitude every day he comes to the park."

So there's really nothing murky about this situation. It's easy to see why Reed and Thornton have their loyalists within the fantasy community — both have great stuff, both will pitch important innings this year — but they aren't threats to save games at the moment. In fact, Reed is two innings removed from the ninth. The Chicago reliever you want is the converted starter with the gimmick pitch. He remains unowned in 51 percent of Yahoo! leagues as of this writing, so a substantial number of you can still make the add. Please do it, then return for the usual Tuesday review of MLB bullpens, ranked last-to-first in terms of closer reliability...


30. BostonAlfredo Aceves, Mark Melancon, Vicente Padilla, Franklin Morales

The good news: Aceves finally got someone out on Monday. More accurately, he retired three batters in a perfect frame, earning his first save of the season. In his two previous appearances, Aceves had allowed four hits and three runs without recording an out, and without inducing a swinging strike. Melancon isn't exactly breathing down anyone's neck right now (5.00 WHIP), but Morales and Padilla have pitched well. The Red Sox reportedly want to give Daniel Bard a fair shot in the rotation, so don't expect him to return to the bullpen just yet.

As for Andrew Bailey, he's had his thumb surgery, he'll be in a cast for perhaps two weeks, and he's been placed on the 60-day DL. It's going to be months, not weeks. He may not save a game all season.

29. WashingtonBrad Lidge, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard

Drew Storen suffered the worst sort of setback, the kind that ends with a visit to Dr. Andrews. The Nats apparently don't believe Tommy John surgery is in Storen's immediate future, but that doesn't mean this won't be an extended absence. This from the Washington Post:

...depending on the results of Andrews' examination, Storen could miss at least half the season because of a loose body in his elbow and the surgery that would be required to remove it.

So far, both Lidge and Rodriguez have earned saves in Storen's absence, although Rodriguez took the loss on Monday (and deserved it). I'd guess that Lidge will get the next save chance, but I don't say that with much confidence.

28. Tampa BayFernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, JP Howell

Kyle Farnsworth can't return soon enough from his elbow strain, because I do not want to find myself writing about Rodney throughout the season. We already discussed the Rays' bullpen on Monday; don't make us go there again.

27. ClevelandChris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith

Perez picked up his first save of the season on Sunday, but it wasn't completely clean: 1.0 IP, H, BB, K. Keep Pestano on speed dial.

26. BaltimoreJim Johnson, Matt Lindstrom, Kevin Gregg

25. MinnesotaMatt Capps, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing

24. New York MetsFrank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Miguel Batista(!)

Yeah, I am not even kidding about Batista. According to manager Terry Collins, he's the third option to close, behind the classic pairing of Francisco & Rauch. There were plenty of red flags with Francisco entering the season, but he's 3-for-3 on save chances so far.

23. Kansas CityJonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Aaron Crow

Broxton's first save opportunity went uncharacteristically well, at least by his recent standards (no hits, no walks, three Ks). The radar readings are getting better, too (97 mph). Keep chucking, big man.

22. Los Angeles DodgersJavy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier

21. TorontoSergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver

OK, Santos is officially on the watch list. And if Cordero takes over full-time, he'll be on the watch list, too. We should just place all Blue Jays relievers on the metaphorical hot seat indefinitely, because this job is cursed. Santos has allowed three hits, three walks and four runs over his last two appearances, blowing saves in each game.

"It wasn't just one bad pitch," he said after Monday's loss. "It was a lot of bad pitches."

Toronto manager John Farrell has already been forced to issue a vote-of-confidence: "Sergio remains our closer."

Still, just in case Santos can't get right, you'll want to consider a Cordero pick-up. After Wednesday's game, Sergio is expected to spend two days away from the team for the birth of his child, so Cordero would definitely handle a Friday save chance.

20. CincinnatiSean Marshall, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Arredondo

19. Chicago White SoxHector Santiago, Matt Thornton, Addison Reed

18. OaklandGrant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Fautino De Los Santos

After a rough spring, Balfour seemed like a shaky source for saves. But he's made four appearances this year and allowed just one hit and one walk, striking out two batters. He's converted saves on two continents.

17. ColoradoRafael Betancourt, Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle

16. TexasJoe Nathan, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara

15. HoustonBrett Myers, Wilton Lopez, Brandon Lyon

Myers made things interesting in his first (and so far only) save chance, allowing a lead-off double, but he eventually cleaned up his own mess. He remains a reasonably safe option for saves, eligible at SP.

14. Los Angeles AngelsJordan Walden, Scott Downs, LaTroy Hawkins

13. San DiegoHuston Street, Andrew Cashner, Luke Gregerson

Fun fact: Cashner's average fastball velocity, after three appearances, is 98.5 mph. So he's pretty good.

12. Chicago CubsCarlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, Rafael Dolis

Yeah, I realize that Marmol has been terrible (20.25 ERA), but Wood has been even worse (27.00 ERA). Let's just say that the bullpen is not a team strength.

11. St. LouisJason Motte, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs

10. DetroitJose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel

Valverde blew a save on opening day, then battled flu symptoms over the weekend. There's no job security issue here (and by writing those words, I've probably guaranteed that he'll cough up the lead the Prince Fielder just gave Detroit, seconds ago).

Update: Nope, he coughed up nothing. Valverde pitched a clean inning. The Tigers are the world champions of Tuesday afternoon baseball. Handshakes and fist-bumps for all...

9. SeattleBrandon League, Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley

8. MilwaukeeJohn Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras

7. ArizonaJJ Putz, David Hernandez, Craig Breslow

6. San FranciscoBrian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla

5. AtlantaCraig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty

4. PittsburghJoel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop

3. Miami Heath Bell, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate

2. PhiladelphiaJonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Chad Qualls

1. New York YankeesMariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano

If you're the sort of fantasy manager who panics about every small-sample event, then you probably couldn't wait to sell your Rivera shares after his opening day blown save. I'm here for you, champ. If you're looking to flip Mo, I'm happy to buy.

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