Ramon Santiago’s days as a Tiger could be numbered

Ramon Santiago has been a fixture on the Tigers bench - Harry How

Ramon Santiago has been a fixture on the Tiger bench for the past six seasons, but he may need to step up his game to keep his job in Detroit.

There are only two players on the Detroit Tigers’ roster who suffered the dark days of the 2003 season. They are Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago. Only two players have been a Tiger every season since Jim Leyland took over as Tiger manager, Santiago and Justin Verlander. Ramon Santiago has been a Tiger for nine seasons, more seasons than any other Tiger.

In a year that most Tigers and Tiger fans would rather forget, 2003 was the only season in Santiago’s career when he was a starter. He played 141 games that season as the Tiger shortstop, logging 507 plate appearances for the team that broke the record for most losses in a season in American League history. Following that season, Santiago was shipped to Seattle in exchange for Carlos Guillen, who would become an All Star and a fixture at shortstop for the new and improved Tigers for the next several years.

To say that Dave Dombrowski robbed the Mariners in the Santiago for Guillen trade would be a gross understatement. But to add insult to injury, the Tigers picked up Santiago once again off the waiver wire, and he has been a utility infielder for Detroit for another seven seasons. The Santiago transactions have been a win, win for the Tigers and for the Tigers again.

The Mariners never appreciated Santiago, keeping him stashed in the minors most of the time and giving him just 47 At Bats in two seasons before letting him return to Detroit. He was up and down with the Tigers for two more seasons until he ran out of options and he’s been a fixture on the roster, mostly in a utility role and playing in more than 90 games in each of the past four seasons.

Santiago briefly had a chance to start again as the Tigers played a game of musical chairs at second base last summer, but the re-arrival of Infante, his fellow co-utility infielder from days gone by, put Santiago back on the bench in his familiar backup role.

Santiago has acquitted himself well as a utility infielder. Prior to last season, he posted five straight years with an average between .260 and .284, an OBP between .311 and .411, and an OPS from .672 to .870. He has been a fixture on the Tiger roster for the past five years.

You might think that, with his experience as a Tiger, he has earned a spot on the roster this spring. Maybe not. Santiago is coming off his worst season as a Tiger, both offensively and defensively. He hit just .206 in 93 games, while the advanced fielding metrics, both UZR and DRS show that he was below league average. He wasn’t the steady defender they had come to expect, and there wasn’t any ‘sneaky power’ at the plate. With that kind of production, his roster spot is not guaranteed, by any means.

All the starting infield jobs are spoken for. Only the familiar job of utility infielder would be available for Santiago. He is guaranteed a salary of $ 2.1 million, thanks to a two year contract that he signed prior to the 2012 season, and the club surely doesn’t want to just toss that money into the can. On the other hand, there will be plenty of utility infielders being cut from rosters around the major leagues that make less than Santiago, so trading him would be easier said than done.

There are three bench spots available on the roster, not including one that will go to a backup catcher. Manager Jim Leyland has always carried at least two backup infielders on his roster. In fact, he used three of his bench spots for backup infielders when the club made it to the World Series in 2006. Santiago, Infante, and Neifi Perez were all on the Tiger bench in that series. Also vying for backup infield duty this spring will be Danny Worth, Rule Five selection Jeff Kobernus, and Leyland favorite Don Kelly, who is back as a non roster invitee.

Santiago plays three infield positions, but so does Danny Worth. Santiago could even be a backup emergency catcher if necessary. Most heavily in Santiago’s favor is the fact that Worth has one option left. So, even if the Tigers feel they might get more utility out of Worth than Santiago, they could keep both players in the organization by sending Worth to Toledo.

The status of Kobernus as a rule five draftee means that, even though he has never been optioned to the minor leagues, the Tigers would have to first put him through waivers, and then offer him back to his original club, the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, before he could be sent to the minors. That’s pretty much the same as being out of options, except that his original club wouldn’t have to use up a spot on the 40 man roster if they took him back.

Based on comments made in the media, the Tigers seem to think that Kobernus, a second baseman by trade, can also play the outfield. There is no word on whether they think he can play shortstop also. But then, Ryan Raburn had proven that he couldn’t play the infield yet they pretended against all reason that he could for a couple of seasons. Chances are that Kobernus is athletic enough to play the outfield, as the transition from infield to outfield is easier than the reverse.

Whether Kobernus is the right handed bat that the Tigers want to share time with Andy Dirks in left field is another matter. More likely, he’d be a third string outfielder, much like Kelly was for them the past couple of seasons. Unlike Santiago, Kobernus bats only right handed, and unlike Santiago, he doesn’t play shortstop or third base. At least not yet.

The most likely scenario is that Santiago is on the team along with Kobernus, while Quintin Berry becomes redundant as yet another left handed outfielder whose speed is replaced by Kobernus. In fact, Santiago likely makes the roster even if Kobernus doesn’t, for all the reasons given above. Either Santiago or Worth figures to be on the team as the backup at shortstop and third base.

If the opportunity presents itself during the spring, the Tiger might just as happily move Santiago and his salary in favor of Worth. There is a market for veteran utility infielders, especially switch hitters who can play multiple positions. After all these years of quietly doing his job and occupying his spot on the bench, the Tigers should have a good idea what they’ve got with Ramon Santiago. But if he comes out hitting .200 again, and more importantly not giving them the steady defense that they’ve come to expect from him, his days as a Tiger could be numbered.

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