Twins, Santana prove right fit for each other

Pitching: The Cy Young favorite, who starts against the Orioles tonight, has justified Minnesota's decision to protect the Rule 5 draft pick on its roster.

September 08, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The current favorite for the American League Cy Young Award started out as a center fielder in the same Venezuelan baseball academy that produced Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora.

Johan Santana signed with the Houston Astros in 1995, just as Mora had four years earlier, and converted into a pitcher. Before long, the Astros made regrettable decisions with both players.

In July 1998, the Astros let Mora leave as a minor league free agent. He signed with the New York Mets, got traded to the Orioles and blossomed into an All-Star last season.

Then, after the 1999 season, the Astros decided not to protect Santana on their 40-man roster before the December Rule 5 draft. To make a long story short, Santana wound up with the Minnesota Twins, who protected him in their bullpen before he became one of the majors' most dominant starting pitchers late last season.

Santana, who makes his next start tonight against the Orioles at Camden Yards, is 14-2 with a 1.57 ERA and 163 strikeouts in his past 17 starts. As Minnesota marches toward its third consecutive postseason, Santana is the main reason his team looks like a legitimate threat to win it all this time.

"For me, he's the Cy Young guy now," Mora said. "I respect all the pitchers, Pedro [Martinez], [Curt] Schilling, [Tim] Hudson, [Mark] Mulder - but Santana is the nastiest pitcher I've seen in my life.

"He throws 94-95 [mph], with a cutter at 90, and his changeup is like a screwball. He knows how to pitch, and he's got big [guts], too."

Santana, 25, was overshadowed in the Houston organization. In 1999, the year before the Twins got him, he was a .500 pitcher in the Single-A Midwest League on a staff that included future Astros pitchers Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding.

The Astros had a roster crunch, so they left Santana unprotected, and Minnesota pounced. The Twins had the first pick in that Rule 5 draft, and Santana was the guy they had pegged, but the Florida Marlins had the second pick and were concerned Minnesota would take Cleveland Indians pitcher Jared Camp.

In a pre-draft arrangement, the Twins took Camp, and the Marlins took Santana, and then the two teams swapped the pitchers, with the Marlins kicking in $50,000. At that point, Santana left the Astros in his rear-view mirror.

"Did they make a mistake? Who knows?" he said. "All I know is I was working and waiting for a chance to do this, to be a starter. This year, I've been a starter, and I've proved that I'm not just a coincidence."

The drawback to taking a Rule 5 player is a team must keep him on the major league roster for an entire season or offer him back to the original club for $50,000.

"The Rule 5, as you know in Baltimore, it's a gamble, and it's a very cheap gamble," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Some of [the draft picks] end up being what you're looking for, and Santana responded."

Santana posted a 6.49 ERA in 30 appearances with the Twins in 2000, hardly the makings of a future Cy Young winner.

After an injury-shortened 2001 season and a long stint in Triple-A in 2002, Santana looked poised to win a spot in the starting rotation in the spring of 2003, when the Twins lost University of Maryland alum Eric Milton to a knee injury.

But instead of taking Santana out of the bullpen, the Twins signed veteran free agent Kenny Rogers to fill Milton's place.

"I was like, `What is this?' " Santana said. "But I was patient. I just waited until I had the opportunity ... and I said, `Well, now I'm going to prove to them and show them that they make a mistake by keeping me in the bullpen.' "

Santana finally got his chance last August, and over the season's final two months, he went 8-0, helping the Twins overtake the Chicago White Sox for the AL Central title.

He finished 12-3 with a 3.07 ERA, but his legs seemed to tire late in the season. He had cramping in both hamstrings, which forced him to leave Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees, who then shelled him for six runs in the Game 4 clincher.

Once the Twins were eliminated, Santana underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow. So there were still doubts this spring, as Santana posted an 8.18 ERA in his first four exhibition games.

But with his elbow healthy, and his legs feeling strong, Santana started hitting his stride in June. For the season, he's 16-6 with a 2.95 ERA, and he leads the AL in strikeouts (224) and opponents' batting average (.196).

"In Santana, I guess you have the guy who's on a roll like we haven't seen in a long time," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "I mean, he just hasn't been giving up anything.

"[Brad] Radke's throwing the ball very, very well and hasn't given up any himself, but Santana's been striking out a lot of people and dominating. We haven't seen the strikeouts come like that in a long time around here."

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