So far in spring training, the best pitcher on the White Sox is the guy who couldn’t get a job.
He also might be the best teammate, a selfless act in sportsmanship unfolding right now in Arizona that is a sight to behold.
A free agent during the worst offseason in the history of free agency, Hector Santiago waited for the phone to ring all winter long. In November, nobody called. In December and January, same thing. Finally in February, teams started showing some interest in the 2015 All Star, but nothing was guaranteed.
Coming off an injury-plagued season, Santiago wasn’t expecting to break the bank in his first chance at free agency, but he did hope better offers would come.
Finally, a day before spring training began, he signed a minor league contract with the White Sox, the first team that gave him an opportunity when they drafted him in the 30th round out of little known Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Niceville, Florida, in 2006.
When he arrived in Glendale, there seemingly wasn’t a spot in the rotation. Heck, there wasn’t even room for Santiago on the 40-man roster.
But now with Carson Fulmer struggling, a door has suddenly swung open. However, instead of walking right through it, Santiago is doing the exact opposite, essentially slamming the door on himself for the sake of the team.
Santiago has chosen to help the young Fulmer every chance he gets.
“I’ve talked with Fulmer a lot,” Santiago said in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “He’s putting a lot more pressure on himself because he feels like he’s competing for a spot. Right now, the job is his and it’s his to lose, so he has to go out there and compete and be positive.”
In his first two spring starts, Fulmer gave up eight runs on nine hits and five walks in two innings. Santiago came out of the bullpen to spell Fulmer in both games and allowed one run in eight innings with one walk and nine strikeouts.
If Fulmer doesn’t improve, the veteran Santiago is the clear candidate to replace him in the rotation.
But Santiago wants Fulmer to get back on track, revealing more about Santiago’s character than his actual pitching ability.
Take Fulmer’s last start. Santiago was watching him in the bullpen and noticed how much energy Fulmer was burning during warm-ups.
“You’ve got to be more conservative going into a game,” Santiago said he told Fulmer. “I was watching him in the bullpen, and I’m like, ‘Here goes three scoreless innings.’ He was executing every pitch, he was spinning it where he wanted it, he had life on the ball, his breaking pitches were great. And then he goes into the game and he gets two strikes, and you’re competing for a spot on the team, and for him it’s like, ‘I gotta get this guy, I gotta get this guy.’ And it’s like, 'No man, if you’ve got a guy 0-2, you’ve just got to execute a pitch. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to bounce it. You can throw a fastball.' He had so many different options where he could put a guy away.”
Instead, Fulmer allowed a leadoff home run to the Padres' Manuel Margot on an 0-2 count in the first inning, and it was pretty much downhill for Fulmer after that.
This could be the best thing to happen for Santiago, who waited all winter for a rotation spot that didn’t come. But here he is, basically blocking his own path by putting the team first ahead of any personal gain.
“I can’t go in there and tell Rick (Hahn), ‘Hey, Fulmer is not throwing the ball over right now, so the spot is mine,'” Santiago said. “I have no control over that. My point is, I can help (Fulmer) and I can go out there and succeed and do well and at the end of spring training you can only hope for the best.”
Santiago’s best friend on the team is Nate Jones. The two came up together as rookies with the White Sox in 2012. Jones is trying to come back from his third major surgery. He should have enough things to worry about. But these two grizzled veterans find themselves spending time away from ballpark thinking about ways to help out the young pitchers.
That’s just the kind of guys they are.
“We’re just sitting at home talking about pitchers and what we can say or do to make them understand that there’s no pressure,” Santiago explained. “We’re teammates, we’re all in this together, we’re obviously competing against each other, but I’m not pushing for anything negative. If I see something I can help someone out with and get better, that’s what we’re here for.”
In the end, Santiago is here to make the team. That seems like a lock right now either in the rotation or as a long man in the bullpen. Though if a closer doesn’t develop in spring training, don’t look past Santiago as a possibility. He came out of nowhere as a rookie in 2012 and became the White Sox ninth inning guy to start the season.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Santiago said looking back.
It could happen again. Who knows?
“For me, I’m trying to go out there and throw strikes and get through my innings and hopefully have a job in the big leagues, whether it’s here or somewhere else. Or a long guy, whatever the case may be,” Santiago said. “Honestly, I’ve never been in this situation before. I’ve always been in team control. As a non-roster invite I could wind up being in Triple-A, a long guy in the big leagues, a starter in the big leagues. I have no idea.”
Whatever role the White Sox give Santiago, he’ll embrace it.
And if Fulmer turns his spring around and makes the rotation, he can thank the pitcher who was in line to replace him.
Some of Santiago’s advice to Fulmer was to have fun — and not worry about outcomes.
Santiago’s advice for the rest of the American League:
“In the near future there’s going to be a lot of teams worrying about the White Sox.”