LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers prospect Cristian Santana spent his offseason in the Dominican Republic working out with Juan Soto.
Yes, that Juan Soto, the 2021 National League runner-up for MVP.
“I want to be like him someday,” Santana said Friday in his first interview with an American reporter. “He is the best hitter in Major League Baseball.”
The Tigers signed Santana for a franchise record $2.95 million signing bonus — topping Roberto Campos’ $2.85 million — out of the Dominican Republic in January 2021.
The 18-year-old shortstop made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League last season, hitting .269 with nine home runs, 27 RBIs, 30 walks and 46 strikeouts in 54 games. He had a .421 on-base percentage, along with 12 stolen bases in 19 attempts.
“I set a goal before the season to have a good performance and do a good job” Santana said from his Tiger Town dorm room at the team’s spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida, with Tigers bilingual media relations coordinator Carlos Guillen interpreting. “This is my responsibility, to fulfill my expectations. In fact, I did fulfill them.”
At 6 feet, 170 pounds, Santana is an advanced hitter for his age with knowledge of the strike zone. He hits to all parts of the field and projects to add more power as he develops. He has an above-average arm but isn’t considered an elite defender. The plan is for him to stay at shortstop, but he could eventually move to second base or third base.
Santana is the Tigers’ No. 8 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.
Could he be the shortstop of the future?
“Every time I go to bed, I start thinking about it,” Santana said. “My biggest wish is to play with the Detroit Tigers in Major League Baseball. … I see myself becoming a major-league player in three years tops. That’s a goal I set for myself, and I know I will fulfill it because I’ve been working very hard.”
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Before those dreams become reality, Santana must advance through the Tigers’ farm system. He is expected to begin the 2022 season in the Florida Complex League. The right-handed hitter has already reported to Lakeland and will compete in minor-league minicamp.
Of the 62 players in camp, Santana is the youngest.
“I would like to show what I am,” said Santana. “I want to get on the fast track and go up another level quickly. In this business, you cannot stay behind. You have to do your best to perform at the highest level as soon as you can.”
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Learning from Soto
The Tigers discovered Santana in the Dominican Republic. He trained with local instructor Cristian “Niche” Batista in Santo Domingo.
Bastista — better known by his nickname — operates Niche Baseball Academy. His complex has produced Soto (Washington Nationals), Jorge Polanco (Minnesota Twins) and Yermin Mercedes (Chicago White Sox), among other MLB players. Before Santana, the Tigers signed outfielder Jose De La Cruz from Niche’s program; he received a $1.85 million bonus in July 2018.
“I spent four years in that academy,” Santana said.
Santana returned to Niche’s camp this offseason for workouts Monday through Saturday, only resting on Sundays. He spent most of his time with Soto, Otto Lopez (Toronto Blue Jays), Alex Ramirez (New York Mets), Angel Martinez (Cleveland Guardians) and Alex De Jesus (Los Angeles Dodgers).
The highlight of his experience was Soto’s mentorship.
“He told me to stay focused this season, to focus myself on what I got to do,” Santana said. “He saw me doing my stuff and saw me doing very good. He said I have a very good future. I just got to keep doing what I did last year and put into practice everything I learned.”
The 23-year-old Soto made his MLB debut at age 19 for the Nationals in 2018 and won the World Series in 2019. The left-handed hitter was an All-Star in 2021, batting .313 with 29 homers, 145 walks and 93 strikeouts in 151 games. His .465 on-base percentage led the big leagues.
“The thing I like the most about him is the way he hits,” Santana said. “I would like to do the same thing when I go to home plate.”
Santana also trained with Elian Soto, Juan Soto’s younger brother, at Niche’s academy. The 16-year-old outfielder and third baseman isn’t eligible to sign until January 2023 but has given a verbal agreement to join the Nationals, according to ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez.
“He’s very good,” Santana said. “The most important thing you see is the willingness he has to belong in this industry. That’s very important in this business.”
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‘Me against everybody’
What stands out about Santana, apart from his talent, is his confidence. He understands baseball’s cut-throat business and acknowledges he will be passed up by other prospects if he doesn’t perform to expectations.
Therefore, he thrives on in-house competition.
“One of the things was being better than everybody else,” Santana said. “This is a competition, since Day 1. You got to stay ahead of everybody. It’s me against everybody. I love this type of competition. It’s a big thrill. It’s an excitement of emotions to be competing against other professionals. In the end, this is what baseball is about.”
Behind Santana’s fierce on-field personality is a steady approach at the plate. He posted a 13.9% walk rate and 21.3% strikeout rate in the Dominican Summer League.
“I start thinking about hitting the ball from the middle to the other side,” Santana said, “and if the pitcher throws a pitch inside, it’s just a matter of reaction, so it’s up to the pitcher to see where he wants me to hit.”
Santana credits Latin American hitting coordinator Francisco Contreras, along with DSL hitting coaches Luis Mateo and Jose Ovalles, for helping him adjust to pro ball. Although Ovalles isn’t with the Tigers anymore, Mateo is returning to the team’s Dominican academy.
The Tigers promoted Contreras — Santana’s favorite coach — to Low-A Lakeland’s hitting coach for the 2022 season.
“That power I showed last year is kind of what I am,” Santana said of his nine homers in 54 games. “But I feel that for this season, and the upcoming seasons, I will have more opportunities to show my power potential. I worked a lot for that.”
There’s no telling what Santana will become for the Tigers. He hasn’t played a professional game in the United States. If he thrives in the Florida Complex League, the next stop is Lakeland.
And Santana believes he can advance swiftly.
“I have all the abilities to do that,” Santana said. “I have a big trust in myself. You got to move quickly in the minor leagues. The idea is to reach the majors.”
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Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.