The Detroit Tigers are in a battle for the Central Division crown and a spot in the Major League Baseball Playoffs.
Most Tigers faithful point to Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch as the main men in the Tigers’ quest for MLB glory. True they are essential in the Tigers bid to overcome the too close call last season when they lost to the Minnesota Twins in a one game playoff.
All true baseball fans realize that the above mentioned men are indispensable and essential, but they also know that it will take a team effort to get to the MLB “promised land.”
One utility player, infielder Ramon Santiago, is shaping up to be a key clog in the overall Tigers quest for the pennant.
The dictionary defines utility as: 1) The quality or condition of being useful; usefulness; 2) Serving or working in several capacities as needed; 3) Prepared to play any of the smaller roles on short notice; 4) Capable of playing as a substitute in any of several positions: a utility infielder.
The definition of what a utility player means has been put to the test for the Tigers during the 2010 season. The 5-foot 10, 175 pound Santiago has found himself in every definition of what a utility player is and can be.
Coming into the 2010 campaign, manager Jim Leyland held Santiago in high regard, knowing that the offensive mix at short with Adam Everett and second base with rookie Scott Sizemore was a giant question mark. A utility infield player like Santiago with a solid glove and value as the only switch-hitter off the bench was a key man in the Leyland’s overall plans.
With Sizemore and Everett booted down to improve their hitting, Santiago has proven to be more than capable of playing as a substitute in any of several infield positions.
“I understand that I have to be prepared mentally at any time to play defense or hit when called on,” Santiago said. “I prepared myself in the off-season to do the job whenever my chance to play happens.”
Santiago said he likes shortstop better, but will play anywhere Leyland asks him to. He also noted that the two positions are very different.
“The biggest difference playing second is you have to move your feet quicker and your back is to the play,” he noted. “At shortstop you have to be ready at all times because you get more balls and the throws are longer.”
Santiago is happy to be in the league after coming up with the Tigers in 2002 where he appeared in 65 games and hit .243. He came back in 2003 and slumped to .225.
The Tigers gave up on him and he was traded, along with Juan Gonzalez, to Seattle in exchange for Carlos Guillén. After playing in the Seattle organization in 2004 and 2005, Santiago was released and re-signed by the Tigers as a free agent for the 2006 season.
Santiago played in a career high 141 game in 2003 for the Tigers, but in his two years in Seattle he only played in 27 games. Anyone could get discouraged and downtrodden, but not Santiago.
Seattle sent him to Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers in the minor leagues, where he did not engage in self-pity. Instead he refocused himself and in 2005 was selected as the team’s MVP and Best Glove in 2005. No matter.
Baseball is fickle. Proving the point, he was released following his stellar season in the minors.
The Tigers snatched him up and brought him back into the fold. He has rewarded the Tigers’ faith in him, hitting .284 (2007) and .282 (2008) for the Tigers. This year with extended playing time he is hitting close to .270.
“I got another chance with the team that signed me when I was 18,” Santiago noted, “so when I came back I was determined to be a productive player for them. I go to spring training every year with a purpose. I have that mentality that anything can happen, so I work that much harder in the off-season to get prepared.”
Serving and working in several capacities as needed, Santiago is the utility player that almost every successful MLB team needs to traverse a 162- game schedule and stay in the playoff hunt.
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.