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Prospect Retro: Johan Santana

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Johan Santana (AP photo)

Per reader requests, a prospect retro on Johan Santana.

The Astros signed Santana as a free agent out of Venezuela in 1995. He pitched in the Dominican Summer League in '96, going 4-3, 2.70 with a 55/21 K/BB ratio in 40 innings. Good numbers, but at this point he was your basic anonymous 17-year-old.

Santana spent '97 with the Gulf Coast League Astros and pitched poorly, posting an 0-4 record, 7.93 ERA, and allowing 49 hits in 36 innings. AT this point he was regarded as a kid with a live arm, but a guy who needed a lot of refinement.

Moved up to short-season Class A at Auburn in '98, he made progress, posting a 4.36 ERA in 15 starts, with an 88/21 K/BB ratio in 87 innings. At this point, he would rate as a Grade C prospect, improving but still too young and raw to get overly excited about. His best mark was his K/IP ratio.

Santana spent '99 with Class A Michigan in the Midwest League, going 8-8, 4.66 in 26 starts, with a 150/55 K/BB in 160 innings. His K/IP and K/BB were solid, but he gave up 162 hits in 160 innings. His stuff was continuing to get better, and he had made strides with his command, but there was no particular reason to think he was about to break through in a big way. The Twins saw something, however. Picking first in the Rule 5 draft, they picked RHP Jared Camp, then traded him to the Marlins for Santana, who the Marlins picked with the second choice. . .the Marlins preferred Camp over Santana, but were afraid that the Twins would pick Camp, so the two teams came to a pre-deal to make everyone happy. I gave him a Grade C+ in the '00 book, noting that he "has skills" but was "unlikely" to stick in the Majors.

The rebuilding Twins decided they had nothing to lose by keeping him in the Show. He spent all of '00 on the roster, posting a poor 6.49 ERA and allowing 102 hits in 86 innings. I saw him pitch several times for the Twins that year. His velocity had picked up into the low 90s compared to the 88-90 MPH he had posted at Michigan. But his breaking ball and changeup were erratic, and his command was unreliable.

Injuries limited him to 44 innings for the Twins in '01, but he did pitch better, dropping his ERA to 4.74. In '02 he emerged as one of the best swingmen in the league, going 8-6, 2.99 in 27 games, including 14 starts.

Heading into 2003, I wrote the following ESPN Hot Stove Heater for 2003 for ESPN, projecting that Santana would be one of the best pitchers in baseball within two years. Of all the things I wrote at ESPN in the years before the corporate hacks took over, I'm most proud of that article.

Without question, Santana is one of the best Rule 5 picks in history. His numbers in the low levels were OK, not terrific, but showing potential. . .like dozens of other Grade C+ pitchers. The key for Santana has been better consistency with his slider and changeup. The fact that Santana has developed so well is testament not only to his own skills and work ethic, but to the player development system and scouting program in Minnesota.

Comparable Pitchers to Johan Santana through age 25, based on Sim Score and PECOTA, no active pitchers included.

Herb Pennock
John Smiley
Waite Hoyt
Sandy Koufax
Roger Moret
Juan Pizarro
Mario Soto
Bob Knepper

Not a bad list. Pennock, Hoyt, and Koufax are Hall of Famers. Pedro Martinez appears on the active pitcher comps, and will be an HOFer certainly. Smiley, Soto, Pizarro, and Knepper were all fine pitchers. The worst guy on the list is Moret, who had personal issues.