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Good scouting got Santana for Twins
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO—July 22, 1999, was a nice summer day in South Bend. Little did anyone realize a perfect storm was beginning to brew.
The visiting Michigan Battle Cats started a skinny Venezuelan lefthander in the low Class A Midwest League game, just 20 but in his fourth season. He pitched six solid innings. Six hits, three runs (all earned), one walk, seven strikeouts.
His performance may not have been overwhelming. But the impression he made on Twins area scout Billy Milos was.
"He just struck me," Milos says five years later. "He threw 88 to 90 miles an hour the whole game and touched 92. He spun a little slider that he kept around the plate. He only threw three changeups, but it was a promising pitch.
"It wasn't so much his stuff as it was I just liked the way he went after guys. He had a strong arm and a lot of confidence, and he attacked the zone and handled himself well."
On their professional scouting reports, the Twins rate players on a 2-8 scale. A 5 means the scout expects the player to be an average big leaguer. In the case of a pitcher, that means either a No. 4 starter or a good set-up man.
In low Class A, there aren't many players who rate such a grade. And overrating prospects isn't going to endear a scout to his bosses. Milos thought about it, and he couldn't give the lefty a 5. He liked him so much he gave him a 6.
"I was thinking he could be a great third starter," Milos said. "I thought I was hanging my (neck) out there on him."
As it turns out, Milos sold Johan Santana's future short.
Tough Decision For Astros
Though Santana finished the season second in the league with 150 strikeouts, the rigors of pitching a career-high 160 innings took a toll. He faded in the final two months, ending with an 8-8, 4.66 record.
The Astros had a tough choice when it came time to set their 40-man roster in November. They believed in Santana's promise. But he was so far from being ready that they thought it would be difficult for a team to select Santana in the major league Rule 5 draft and keep him in the big leagues for all of 2000. Protecting him also would mean they'd have to begin using his three option years to send him to the minors.
Complicating the decision, the six weeks he took off before the start of the Venezuelan League did wonders for Santana's arm. Refreshed once the winter season started, he began to touch 94-95 mph with his fastball.
The Astros opted to keep 37 players, leaving two spots open to sign free agents Tony Eusebio and Doug Henry. They chose to protect one Michigan prospect: first baseman Aaron McNeal, who led the MWL with 38 homers and 131 RBIs in 1999 but has yet to reach the majors.
"Honestly, Johan was No. 40 or 41 on our list," says Paul Ricciarini, then Houston's coordinator of pro scouting and now the club's scouting director. "He had kind of a mixed year, and he didn't have the changeup like he has now. That was a tough call, and it came back to bite us."
Milos pushed the idea of taking Santana in the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings in December. The Twins had a Midwest League affiliate in Quad City, so they asked manager Jose Marzan to dig into his background. There were no red flags.
Getting An Ace—And $50,000
The Twins knew they could get Santana in the Rule 5 draft because they owned the No. 1 overall choice. Minnesota actually came out $50,000 ahead in the bargain.
Several teams wanted Indians righthander Jared Camp, who had been clocked at 97 mph in the Arizona Fall League. The Marlins, choosing second, offered $100,000 to the Twins to swap selections. So Minnesota spent $50,000 to choose Camp, Florida did the same to grab Santana and they immediately traded players.
"Just like a lot of Rule 5 situations, it has to be a little bit of a perfect storm," Minnesota scouting director Mike Radcliff says. "A lot of things have to hit. We weren't good at that time and we were able to take a shot on a guy who was further away.
"Billy Milos saw some ceiling in the guy. Jose Marzan followed up in depth on his makeup. Then we followed him in the winter league. It was a long projection, but we had some confidence in him because of the process."
While Camp's career ended in Double-A in 2002, Santana's began to take off. After spending two years in Minnesota, he returned to the minors, where Triple-A pitching coach Bobby Cuellar helped him develop the changeup that has become his signature pitch.
Santana starred as a swingman in 2002-03, and when the Twins made him a full-time starter in 2004, he became the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Santana went 20-6 and led the American League in ERA (2.61) and strikeouts (265 in 228 innings), making him a unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award—the first Rule 5 pick to capture a major award since George Bell was AL MVP in 1987.
"For every Rule 5 guy that makes it, there are 100 that don't," Milos says. "Did I ever think he was going to be as good as he is now? No, I didn't. But I put a pretty good number on him."
You can reach Jim Callis by sending e-mail to email@example.com.