In 2008, Sergio Santos hit .228 with a .607 OPS as a 24-year-old shortstop in Triple A. He will begin the 2012 season as the multi-million dollar closer of the Chicago White Sox. The Sox locked the now 28-year-old to a three-year deal worth a guaranteed $8.25 million. With club options, the deal could max out at six years and just over $30 million.
The former first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks was a once a top-40 prospect as a shortstop. As he advanced in level, his bat failed to do the same. With little development, his future as a major leaguer was in doubt. Santos signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox in early 2009 which proved to be a career-changing move.
In a set of strange circumstances, he was briefly traded from the White Sox to the San Francisco Giants during spring training. However, before the trade was made, the Giants agreed to send him back to Chicago if they did not have a position for him in Triple- A. Prior to the start of the season he returned to the White Sox where he began the process of converting from infielder to pitcher.
Santos made 26 relief appearances in 2009, spanning four different levels of the minor leagues. Those appearances were good enough to earn him a chance to make the big league club in 2010. Santos not only made the team, but appeared in 56 games as a rookie. He posted a 2.96 ERA despite a .345 BABIP thanks to a high – but not uncommon for a relief pitcher– strand rate of 80%. His 3.82 xFIP suggested there was true talent, but his 3.8% HR/FB rate appeared to be fortuitous. Still, the convert showed tremendous stuff led by a mid-90s fastball and a slider that missed bats in bunches.
This offseason the White Sox moved on from one-time closer Bobby Jenks. The role was handed to Matt Thornton who failed to grab hold of the job. In late April, the bullpen phone started ringing for Santos in save situations. Santos saved 30 games for Chicago, making 63 appearances overall. His ERA jumped a half-run; however, his defensive independent metrics improved despite home run related regression.
Santos posted an impressive 9.75 K/9 as a rookie. He blew that out of the water in 2011, posting a K/9 of 13.07. His 14.1% swinging strike rate was fourth-best among qualifed American League relievers. Hitters whiffed on a whopping one-third of the sliders he threw. Thanks in large part to his ridiculous strikeout rate, his 2.87 FIP and 2.69 xFIP cemented him as a true relief ace.
Despite the fantastic results of the past two seasons, guaranteeing money to Santos before he is arbitration eligible is risky. On the other hand, the guaranteed portion of the contract is far from franchise-crippling. Also, there is a good chance the team would have paid much more going year-to-year.
Without an extension, Santos would have been arbitration eligible after the 2012 season. Fellow Chicago closer, Carlos Marmol earned $2 million in his first-year of arbitration. At the time, he had 23 career saves and a 3.42 career ERA. Marmol saved 38 games in 2010 and filed for $5.65 million in salary this offseason. Soon after, he agreed to a three-year pact worth $20 million guaranteed.
Saves and ERA are not the best measure of a reliever’s effectiveness, but they do play up in front of an arbitration panel of baseball outsiders. There is a decent chance Santos could have entered arbitration for the first time with 60+ saves and a ERA of 3.50 or less. With that, he would have been well within his rights to file around the $4 million mark. If that happened, and he continued in the role, he would be in position to command Jonathan Papelbon-like figures in future years.
The calculated risk by the White Sox is likely to pay off as Santos as the stuff to be a dominant late-inning option for years to come. If things play out well, the club will have the option of buying his first two free-agent seasons for $16.75 million – what should amount to a steal. If things go south, the Sox will have overpaid, but most likely not by much since he has already banked arbitration money with a 30-save season. We don’t know who will be making the call down to the White Sox’ bullpen going forward, but they should be glad to have Santos locked and loaded throughout his prime