Cristian Santana stepped into the batter’s box for his first-ever tryout.
Scouts were evaluating a group of players in the Dominican Republic. He was only 13 years old, but in that moment, he promised himself he would control the strike zone for the rest of his career.
Santana, who turned 19 in late November, became a top international prospect and signed with the Detroit Tigers for a franchise-record $2.95 million bonus in January 2021. After two seasons, he looks like a key piece of the organization’s future.
“I don’t know if it comes naturally, but I try not to swing at pitches outside the strike zone,” Santana said in Spanish, with Tigers bilingual media coordinator Carlos Guillen interpreting. “If I’m going to make an out, it has to be with a pitch in the strike zone, not outside the strike zone.”
GETTING TO KNOW HIM: Meet Tigers’ prized prospect Cristian Santana, a confident shortstop
He showed promise last season in Low-A Lakeland as one of the youngest players in the Florida State League and should be in High-A West Michigan to start the 2023 season. His success to this point can be attributed to his plate discipline, but Santana has been asked to take the next step in his development.
It’s all about exit velocity.
That starts in the weight room.
“Where the hits come from, a lot of his offseason player plan was focused on the weight room and his diet,” Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, said. “He needs to get stronger, more mobile and impact the baseball a little harder. The exit velocities weren’t the highest of the group, but he’s a very young player.”
EX-GIANTS PROSEPCT: Outfielder Diego Rincones brings contact skills, aggressive approach to Tigers
In 2022, Santana hit .215 with nine home runs, 54 walks and 88 strikeouts across 80 games in Low-A Lakeland. He posted an above-average 123 wRC+ and a .384 on-base percentage.
Santana started 33 games at shortstop, 29 games at second base and 11 games at third base. He seems to profile as a second baseman but doesn’t want to move away from his natural position.
“I see myself playing shortstop for the Tigers,” he said.
Santana skipped the Florida Complex League — advancing straight from the Dominican Summer League in 2021 to Low-A Lakeland in 2022 — but ended up playing two games in the FCL while recovering from an oblique injury that sidelined him for about a month early in the season.
A significant age gap separated Santana from many of his peers at the Low-A level. The average age in the Florida State League was 22 years old on Opening Day; Santana was 18.6 years old.
“We pushed him because he was ready for it,” Garko said.
EVALUATING VIERLING: Why Matt Vierling ‘could be a dynamic player’ for Tigers if he develops swing
EVALUATING SANDS: New Tigers catcher Donny Sands’ biggest challenge: A good fastball
Although hitting .215 seems concerning, the answer to the puzzling traditional statistic is found within his measly 82.3 mph average exit velocity. He produced a lot of weak fly balls, which often resulted in outs.
During the season, the Tigers created a schedule to introduce Santana to the weight room. Low-A Lakeland hitting coach Francisco Contreras — who has moved up to High-A West Michigan for the 2023 season — and strength and conditioning coach Dax Fiore crafted his routine.
This offseason, Santana has focused on adding weight. He weighed in at 207 pounds in late December.
“One of my goals this year is to make more contact with the ball,” Santana said. “But I have to work out and get more muscle. … I feel more powerful. I feel like I have more power. One of the things I have to do is keep working out because I feel very good this way.”
Outfield prospect Roberto Campos, for comparison, recorded an impressive 87.0 mph average exit velocity in the same league last season, though he smacked just five home runs in 112 games.
For now, the Tigers don’t think Santana’s below-average exit velocity is a product of his swing mechanics. Kenny Graham, the director of player development, has been working with his hitting team on some small tweaks to the swing, but there won’t be dramatic changes.
“I truly believe this (situation) is just letting the player grow into his body and find some strength,” Garko said. “The bat speed ticks up first, then the exit velocity starts ticking up. It’s pretty simple. Hit the ball harder, and you get more hits. I think that’s where he’s headed.”
The other concern is Santana’s contact rate on pitches placed in the outside part of the strike zone, but since he has an athletic build, he should be able to adjust and cover those pitches as he matures. Last season, he favored pitches in the inside part of the zone.
“I know Cristian Santana, batting-average wise, didn’t really light up the Florida State League,” Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international operations, said. “But he’s a premium talent, and I’m certainly looking forward to what he can do.”
What allows Santana to thrive, despite lackluster exit velocities, is his advanced strike zone awareness.
In 2022, he recorded a 16.6% walk rate, 26.1% strikeout rate, 26.7% chase rate and 69.7% contact rate. His walk and chase rates — when compared to qualified MLB players last season — were above average, while his strikeout and contact rates were below average.
The Tigers understand the value of Santana’s primary skills and will continue pushing him up the ladder within the farm system. They’re expecting a stronger and faster version of Santana to arrive in Lakeland, Florida, when spring training begins in mid-February.
If that happens, he should start the season in High-A West Michigan.
“You begin someplace, but you never know where you’re going to finish,” Santana said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I finished in Double-A (Erie). It doesn’t matter where I start. As soon as they make the decision, I’ll take it with all the thankfulness.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.