Santana, Sequera sticking together as they aim for SS role

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Most infield work at the Tigers’ Minor League minicamp is focused on making routine fundamental plays consistently. But sometimes a ground ball gives somebody a chance to make an impression. Manuel Sequera took it on Tuesday.

A ball up the middle sent the Venezuelan-born shortstop racing to his left to run it down. Once he did, he whirled and made a sidearm throw on the mark to first base. Even Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell, who has been working with all the infielders in camp, had to be impressed.

“Last year I had a little blind spot where I was not reaching the ball right, like my reach was limited,” Sequera said on Tuesday through translator Jose Sajour. “So during the offseason in Venezuela, I worked with my reach, my speed, my stance, so now I feel that I can play to the level of the shortstop correctly.”

Playing in the same shortstop group, Cristian Santana moved to balls with the smoothness of a gifted athlete. His legs are as thick as tree trunks, giving him power on throws, and he swings along a low center of gravity to bounce around the infield. He’s good, and he’s confident.

“It’s prideful for me,” Santana said of working with Trammell. “It’s an honor to play with him, learn from him. If God allows me, I point to be better than him.”

The Tigers signed Sequera and Santana a year and a half apart in international prospect classes. Santana was a highly ranked shortstop out of the Dominican Republic who signed a year ago for a $2.95 million bonus, a Tigers record. Sequera signed for a $750,000 bonus, a deal that was overshadowed by the Tigers’ then-record signing of Cuban slugger Roberto Campos.

The 18-year-old Santana ranks ninth on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Tigers’ Top 30 prospects before he has played a game in the U.S. He backed up his lofty standing last year in the Dominican Summer League, posting a .942 OPS in 54 games, with nine home runs and 27 RBIs. He had as many strikeouts as hits — 46 — but he also drew 30 walks, raising his on-base percentage to .421.

Sequera didn’t have a chance to play anywhere in 2020 due to the pandemic and made his pro debut last summer as an 18-year-old in the Florida Complex League, the Rookie level once known as the Gulf Coast League. He hit .246 with an .823 OPS, but 11 home runs and 12 doubles out of his 42 hits helped him earn league MVP honors and pop up on prospect rankings.

In the process he has gained confidence, albeit quietly.

“I’ve learned about how to control my anxiety,” Sequera said. “At the beginning of the year, I was so anxious to show, but now I’m more relaxed.”

That showed later on Tuesday morning, when he took batting practice in a group that included not only Santana but slugging outfielders Campos and Jose De La Cruz. De La Cruz smacked a pair of tape-measure home runs that hit neighboring Lake Parker Drive on the fly — thankfully missing traffic — and Sequera hit the road on a couple of bounces.

“I’m constantly working on bat speed, so I can approach better to the pitchers,” Sequera said. “I work much better with a pitcher on the mound, so in Venezuela in the offseason, I’m always working with pitchers.”

Despite having different backgrounds and competing goals, Santana and Sequera have struck up a friendship, having worked out together at the Tigers’ Dominican academy last month before arriving in Lakeland.

As Santana gets his first taste of living in the U.S., Sequera has been helping him make the adjustment to the culture and the food.

“Cristian is a very focused person in his work, with a good work ethic,” said Sequera. “He’s a very quiet person who is always focused. We’ve developed a relationship where we help each other more than having a competition.”

“Yeah, we compete,” he said, “but we don’t want it to show.”

Time will tell whether either of them is the Tigers’ shortstop of the future. Both had high error totals last year — 14 in 40 games at short for Sequera, 10 in 35 games for Santana — but that isn’t unusual for players at low levels. Santana has drawn comparisons with former Tiger Jhonny Peralta, who was an offense-first shortstop but more than held his own at the position. Sequera lists himself at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds but shows the skills of someone smaller.

Either could have the chance to become the next Willy Adames, who was a hidden gem at Class A West Michigan at age 18 before Detroit traded him to Tampa Bay in the David Price Deadline deal in 2014. Four years after the trade, Adames made his Major League debut with the Rays. Two years later he was a critical part of the Rays’ American League championship squad. He hit 25 home runs between the Rays and Brewers last season.

Both Santana and Sequera watched another big shortstop, Manny Machado, growing up, and modeled their games after him.

“I want to be a shortstop,” Sequera said. “That’s something that I can control, and if there’s something that I can control, I will do it.”

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