Santos Hopes To Regroup

Former top prospect hopes success in Mexico will pay off




HERMOSILLO, Mexico—Blue Jays infielder Sergio Santos took a step back in his career in 2007. But the move back to Double-A after two seasons at the Triple-A level turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Diamondbacks' 2002 first round draft choice.

"It was a hard pill to swallow," Santos said. "But at the end of the day it was the best for me. I regained confidence and belief in myself."

After batting only .239/.288/.367 at Triple-A Tucson in 2005, Santos was packaged up with Troy Glaus and shipped to Toronto for Miguel Batista and Orlando Hudson. His first season in the Blue Jays system was even worse than his 2005 numbers. The 24-year-old hit just .214/.254/.299 with Triple-A Syracuse in 2006. Clearly, Santos' prospect star was starting to dim.

The 6-foot-3 shortstop rallied in 2007 by hitting .250/.325/.477 with 34 doubles and 20 homers at Double-A New Hampshire. After a short stint back at Syracuse, Santos reported to the Arizona Fall League, his second time in Major League Baseball's premier development league. He hit .319/.337/.585 with five home runs in 94 at-bats for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

But Santos wasn't quite ready to shut it down after a successful 2007 season. He's now playing for the Obregon Yaquis of the Mexican Pacific League.

"It was a pretty decent year and I wanted to ride that going into the following year," Santos said before a recent game at Hermosillo. "I'm starting to figure things out and I wanted to keep rolling with it. Hopefully, I can continue it here, it can trail into spring training and I can have a good spring."

In addition to just getting more at bats, Santos believes that there's more that he can learn in Mexico.

"There's a lot of experience in pitching here," Santos said. "They have a lot of older guys . . . veterans that know how to pitch . . . there's definitely a lot more offspeeds thrown here, so it allows you to see different types of offspeeds, whether it's a curveball, slider, changeup, split . . . whatever it may be, it just allows you to see spin on balls and recognize them a little better."

Santos is making an easy transition to playing ball in Mexico. While he was born and raised in California, both of his parents are from Mexico and he speaks some Spanish.

"That's another reason I wanted to come down (to Mexico)," Santos said. "I don't know as much as I would like to know so I'm going to grasp as much as I can and refine my Spanish."

Santos is playing his regular shortstop position for the Yaquis, but what the Toronto organization has in mind for him is up in the air. After playing shortstop virtually all his life, Santos was asked to get work at third base during the Arizona Fall League season.

"Anything I can do to get in the big leagues and stay there is what I plan on doing," Santos said, although he admitted that moving to the hot corner was a bit of an adjustment for him.

"It's a difficult thing," Santos said. "Balls are coming at your quicker. You can't use your feet as much. It's more of a reaction . . . it's more of a drop step or a charge, where at shortstop you get to use your feet a little more and get a little more time. All it took (to get adjusted) was just games . . . after about 10 to 15 games, I started to get a little more used to it.

"I feel really good going into next year and I think it's going to be a big turning point in my career, and I'm hoping that it's a turning point for the better."

—BILL MITCHELL

Rare Youth In Hermosillo

The Mexican Pacific League is well known for its abundance of veteran pitchers on each of the eight teams' rosters. But Hermosillo two young prospects on their 2007 staff in Jesus Castillo (Dodgers) and Edgar Osuna (Braves). Both pitchers are in their first winter league seasons.

Osuna, who just turned 20, is filling a different role with Hermosillo than during his first two years in the Atlanta organization. Primarily a starter in the minor leagues, Osuna is being used by the Naranjeros as a lefthanded specialist, generally facing only one batter in each outing.

"You need to control your pitches," Osuna said. "If you want to throw a curveball, you throw a strike . . . first pitch. The guys are here to swing the bat; they want to hit."

At 165 pounds, Osuna's lanky frame has room to fill out. How much speed he adds to his current 88 mph fastball will likely determine whether he stays in the rotation or heads to the bullpen.

"I think he'll do a better job in the bullpen," said Hermosillo coach and former big league pitcher Max Leon. "He has a decent curveball and his fastball has good life . . . it moves pretty good. At this moment, he doesn't have much velocity. When he gains more weight, he'll add that velocity. But right now, I think the future for him is the bullpen."

At 23, Castillo is the older of the two hurlers. The righthanded native of Nogales, Sonora just completed his third season in the Dodgers organization, compiling 6-9, 4.78 numbers with high Class A Inland Empire.

Castillo, whose best pitch is a fastball that touches 95, is working on his secondary pitches in Hermosillo. He knows that he need more than just his fastball to get hitters out consistently.

"I think I'm getting better down here," Castillo said, "I'm getting more experience and working on my slider."

His time in Mexico comes after he spent the early part of the fall in the Dodgers instructional league camp in Arizona where he primarily worked on improving his breaking ball.

Leon added that Castillo is also working on throwing a 12-to-6 curveball while in Hermosillo.

"He's got a chance to pitch in the big leagues," Leon said. "He has a good athletic body . . . he's a smart kid. He likes to work every day; he likes to learn everything and he's really coming along well."

Gomez Doing Fine

Reports surfaced in early December that Mets outfielder Carlos Gomez was hit in the head by a pitch in the Dominican League turned out to be overblown.

Gomez, who batted .232/.288/.304 in a limited big league stint in Queens last year, was apparently grazed—by a breaking ball—on November 27 against Gigantes. The ball brushed off Gomez's batting helmet, but he was unscathed.

The incident looked worse than it actually was, and after Gomez left the game and missed nearly 10 days, speculation about an injury grew.

But Gomez had other things to worry about than baseball over those 10 days. He was married in the Dominican, then went on his honeymoon before returning to Escogido.

"He had more on his mind than just baseball leading up to his wedding date," Mets vice president of player personnel Tony Bernazard said. "That ball scared him a little bit, I think, but there was nothing physically wrong with him. He just had other places to be."

Gomez was the National League's youngest player when he debuted last May. He broke the hamate bone in his left hand on a checked swing in July, however, and missed two months following surgery.

In 102 at-bats for Escogido, Gomez was hitting .255/.321/.324.

"He's still trying to get his feet under him after the surgery, but his hitting is coming back," Bernazard said. "He's going to be fine.

"He's a true five-tool player with outstanding speed and defense. He just has to learn how to play more under control. If he does that, he's got the chance to be a very special player. I mean, this guy is faster than (Jose) Reyes. Not only is that incredible, it's unbelievable."

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• The Dominican Republic was hit hard by Hurricane Olga in mid-December, especially the area around Santiago, which will host the 2008 Caribbean Series in February. The Dominican Winter League only missed four nights of games, but several academies, including the Mets, was closed down early until mid-January. The Mets, who will move into a new facility in the Dominican this spring, decided to end workouts due to the inclement weather. As for the Caribbean Series, there are no plans to move it to another venue as of now.

•  Brewers' first baseman/outfielder Brad Nelson played himself back into prospect status in 2007 at Triple-A Nashville after back-to-back average seasons. Nelson, a fourth-round pick in 2001, was leading the Dominican Winter League with eight homers. Overall, the 25-year-old was hitting .235/.328/.471 through 119 at-bats.

• Diamondbacks lefty Dana Eveland put together a solid season in the Mexican Pacific League, ranking among the league leaders with 4-2, 2.51 numbers in 61 innings for Mexicali. Eveland, who spent several days in a Mexican hospital this winter after contracting salmonella, had a 69-15 strikeout-walk ratio and had allowed 54 hits over that span.

• In the Blast From The Past category, former uber prospect turned perennial indy league all-star Jimmy Hurst surfaced in the Nicaraguan Winter League in November. Now 35, Hurst was hitting .267/.344/.458 in 131 at-bats for San Fernando.