While Major League Baseball and the players’ union remain at odds over the next collective bargaining agreement, it is the 2017-2021 edition to which we look today in considering the Detroit Tigers’ farm system. Added to that agreement were new rules for signing international free agents, one that established a bonus pool structure and sought to close off some of the loopholes teams exploited in the previous ruleset. It was at that point that the Tigers finally started to match other teams’ spending power. Infielder Cristian Santana looks like the best of the group.
However, Santana only just turned 18 back in November, so patience is required. Until he comes stateside to play rookie ball in the Florida Complex League, there isn’t much we can add to reports from top national sources like FanGraphs and Baseball America. Those reports are pretty glowing, and paint a picture of a very good pure hitter with a stronger chance of success than some of the Tigers’ recent top international signings. There’s enough consensus there to rank Santana seventh in the system.
The Tigers were in the biggest bonus pool tier during the 2021 signing period, which was initially delayed from its usual July date, and put the spending power to work acquiring a pair of top infield prospects. The second of the two, Venezuelan shortstop Abel Bastidas, signed for $1.175 million and was MLB Pipeline’s 27th ranked prospect in the signing class. Dominican shortstop Cristian Santana was the more advanced hitter, ranked 14th by MLB Pipeline, and the Tigers top prize for the signing period.
Santana hails from San Cristóbal, just outside of the Dominican Republic’s capitol city of Santo Domingo. He was on the radar early in a country where the advanced scouting starts when kids are barely teenagers. Santana turned 16 in November of 2020, and the Tigers signed him for $2.9 million two months later.
Reports on Santana from his first stint in pro ball in the Dominican Summer League were excellent, as were his statistics. He was expected to hit, and he did, showing patience and more power than expected. Santana cracked nine home runs in just 54 games while posting a .421 on base percentage as a 17-year-old.
A shortstop currently, the general consensus is that he’ll likely profile best at second base in time. Santana has a relatively compact six-foot frame, and is nimble enough to play shortstop, but doesn’t really have the standout defensive tools to stay there as he advances in pro ball. Still he has enough athleticism to play a host of positions and should have no trouble finding a place for his bat to play if it develops as expected.
Santana’s feel to hit leads the way among his numerous desirable traits. His approach is relatively advanced as well, but it’s his smooth, balanced stroke and good hands at the plate that attracted a lot of attention during his pro debut. He combines advanced feel for contact with very good batspeed, producing more hard all fields contact than his size might suggest. Scouts were rapidly converted to considering him one of the better pure hitters in the rookie ball levels, and his future power grades were bumped up substantially. There will be great interest in his expected Complex League debut this summer.
You can get a look at him in this promo clip from his academy back in 2019. He’s gotten a good deal stronger in the interim, but the balance, compact stroke with a little loft and good extension, and good hands are already notable.
FanGraphs currently ranks Santana fifth among Tigers’ prospects. They project a future plus hit tool, and reference the Placido Polanco comp in their report. It’s clear that Santana also flashed more power than was expected in his Dominican Summer League debut, and attracted a lot of attention. He’ll be one of the players scouts are most curious to see in the Complex League this summer.
Many of the Tigers other big ticket international signings, names like Roberto Campos, Jose de la Cruz, and Adinso Reyes, were of the power first variety. Campos in particular already has plus raw power and is still only 18. The question with each is whether they can hit enough to tap into the power tool, and skepticism is going to win out until one of them breaks out in A-ball. Santana is the best pure hitter of the group, and as a result has the best chance to make an impact at the major league level eventually. The fact that he showed more power than expected, along with the advanced hitting profile, is a very good sign that the Tigers might have a very productive infielder in a few years.
Projected 2022 team: Florida Complex League Tigers
The Tigers brought Roberto Campos to Florida as an 18-year-old, and it should be no different with Santana this season. Though he didn’t participate in fall instructional ball, the advanced approach and contact ability appear ready for the next test. Santana actually worked out this offseason with Washington Nationals’ star, Juan Soto, so he got a good look at what it takes to be great in the show. If things go as well as hoped based on the reports, it’s not impossible that Santana could get a little time with the Lakeland Flying Tigers later in the summer.