Santiago's versatility key for Tigers
Veteran's offseason work should lead to better endurance
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Ramon Santiago might never be an everyday player for the Tigers. The opportunities haven't abounded. But if he's going to be a situational guy, it's a pretty good situation for him.
He's just coming off of a timeshare at shortstop for the Tigers, potentially the offensive part of the mix at short with Adam Everett. He's insurance at second base with rookie Scott Sizemore. And he's shaping up to be the only switch-hitter off the bench.
All things considered, he's a vital part to the Tigers' fate this season, which is a big reason why he's the one non-regular with a job seemingly set this early in camp. It's also a reason why the Tigers were willing to commit to a two-year contract with him. Yet between winter ball and the Caribbean Series, he probably came to camp as the Tigers position player best prepared to win a job.
"I come ready for any position, short or second," Santiago said. "I worked in the offseason for that. But regardless, I'm happy in whatever role they put me in, and I'm going to try to do my best to help this team win. It's the most important thing for me. Everybody, we get on the same page and try to win ballgames. That's most important."
For someone who could've made a strong play for a starting job at either spot if needed, it's a good attitude to take.
For a brief while, Santiago seemed potentially poised to slot in at either spot. In early November, when Scott Sizemore had just undergone ankle surgery and Everett had just filed for free agency, Santiago was the one sure thing the Tigers had in the middle infield. Moreover, he was starting to heat up in winter ball.
The situation obviously changed, but the Tigers' trust in Santiago did not. Though the Tigers are starting to rack up a good collection of infielders in the system capable of utility work, including Don Kelly and Brent Dlugach, they've made an investment in Santiago.
Santiago, meanwhile, has made a commitment to the Tigers.
"I've always liked this organization," Santiago said. "They gave me an opportunity. It's the organization I came up in, and I've made my career here. I wish I can stay here for life."
Until Sizemore became Detroit's likely starter at second this year, Santiago was actually the last rookie middle infielder to play every day in Detroit. He broke into the Majors as a midseason callup at shortstop in 2002, replacing Shane Halter, then played in 141 games between shortstop and second base on the 119-loss Tigers of '03.
He played just 160 games in the big leagues over the next five years until last season, when a fast start led him into a platoon with Everett for much of the summer. Now he's trying to build off his season, whatever happens from here.
He knows his reputation for strong starts and late-season fades. It has shown in his stats the last couple years, and it has furthered the belief that he wears down when he plays every day. His offseason was meant to help maintain what he starts.
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"Sometimes you start good, but you want to finish strong," Santiago said. "I want to be more consistent, be consistent the whole year. Sometimes every player during the year has a tough time because it's a long season, but you have to keep your mind ready and your body ready. I'm going to try to do my best."
Winter ball played into that. He started fast in the Domincan League and maintained that even after the talent level picked up down the stetch and into the playoffs, finishing with a .322 average and .937 OPS for the eventual Dominican champion Gigantes del Cibao.
All the while, he maintained an offseason workout regimen designed to help his quickness. He had specific exercises designed with input from Tigers conditioning coach Javair Gillett, and he changed his diet to focus more on lean meats and protein.
"My goal before Spring Training was to get a little faster," he said. "I want to steal some more bases this year, be more aggressive on the bases, more aggressive first to third. I'm going to try to get the extra base. I've got it in my mind. It's something I want to improve this Spring Training."
Most Dominican champions change their roster into All-Star teams when they shift to the Caribbean World Series and compete against league champions from Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Gigantes wanted Santiago to stick around, and he obliged. It wasn't in his plans, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Santiago went 6-for-19 in the series and played solid defense, helping Gigantes to the Caribbean title. He went almost directly from there to Florida for Spring Training, playing catch and working out in the short time between stops.
"That's the advantage of the thing," Santiago said. "You come into the games ready. You don't have to practice to get ready. You just have to maintain what you've been doing for a couple months."
Manager Jim Leyland said he plans to rest Santiago a little more than usual this spring to avoid wearing him down before the season eventually starts. And Santiago said he tries to rest up once he gets home from camp most days. But he feels prepared for whatever role he's in.
Nobody knows what role that will take. All he can do is be ready.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.