There’s no disputing the Dodgers have suffered a lot of injuries this season — especially in the starting rotation. Kenta Maeda hurt his hip last night. Clayton Kershaw has been out with biceps tendinitis. Rich Hill‘s finger exploded. Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s groin is hurt badly. It hasn’t been pretty, and the Dodgers have already dipped into their starting pitcher reserves.
Walker Buehler has already come up and been the team’s best starting pitcher to date. Ross Stripling has stepped in admirably after pitching well in the bullpen. Brock Stewart has struggled in his spot starts. But now, Dennis Santana is getting his shot.
Santana, 22, has been nothing but excellent this season between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City — 2.54 ERA, 29.6 K%, 7.8 BB% and 6.5 H/9. He was promoted to OKC a couple weeks ago and threw six scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out 11.
It has been a quick ascension for the former shortstop. The Dodgers signed him in that capacity, but after a .568 OPS season in 2013 at age 17 in the Dominican Summer League, he was converted to the mound. He struggled in his first season (6.42 ERA), but then turned things around in the following season with Great Lakes. He had a 3.07 ERA in 111 1/3 innings. Last season, he followed that up with 118 1/3 innings and pitched to a 4.11 ERA between High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Tulsa. In fact, it was just about 14 months ago I saw him in person pitching for the Quakes in Stockton. I came away impressed.
“Santana works with a low-90s fastball that touched 95 in this outing. He sat more in the 91-93 range for the duration. A note: It seems he’s added a little velocity since his first outing of the season. That isn’t surprising as the night he pitched was a little chilly (for April in Stockton, at least), but he still made due with what he had. The fastball was a little straighter than I expected, but he also showed some of the sinking, arm-side run that makes it a potential plus pitch. His main offspeed pitch is a slurvy breaking ball in the 81-84 MPH range. He got some swinging strikes with it, but also froze some of the Stockton Ports’ hitters. It has a big 10-4 break, but he gets good spin on it. It’s more effective against righties than lefties right now. He’ll need to tighten it up against southpaws if it’s to be a better swing-and-miss pitch. His changeup had sinker-like action and velocity. It sat in the 87-89 MPH range and even touched 90. It’s a solid pitch on the surface, but the velocity difference from his fastball isn’t as wide as a traditional changeup. Its improvement will likely determine whether he sticks in the rotation long-term or ends up in the bullpen. He’s poised on the hill and doesn’t get rattle easily.”
Since I saw him, he now works more in the 92-95 MPH range consistently with plus-sink. His slider has definitely improved, becoming a true weapon against both-handed hitters. But the biggest improvement has been the changeup. He’s been able to differentiate it from his fastball more, adding some fade to lefties. It improved toward the end of last season, and it has carried into 2018. In fact, he’s enjoying career-best splits against left-handed hitters (.441 OPS). It remains to be seen if it’s nothing more than a one-season change, but the reports of improved offspeed pitches would lend legitimacy to the idea that he’s not as vulnerable against left-handed hitters anymore.
As for his role, well, that remains to be seen. He last pitched on Thursday, so he could start at anytime. With Stripling slated to pitch tonight, Santana probably won’t bump him. Ironically, he could bump Kershaw, who is scheduled to pitch tomorrow against Philadelphia. If he doesn’t, and he’s coming up to start, then he’d be making his MLB debut in Colorado. That … wouldn’t be great, no matter how poor the Rockies’ offense is on paper. Having Santana start Thursday while pushing Kershaw to the weekend in Coors might be best for everyone. What would actually be best is for baseball not to exist in Colorado, but that isn’t happening ever. It would give Santana to start at home, in a more neutral environment instead of throwing him into the fire that is Coors Field. Plus, it would give Kershaw a couple extra days to get ready for a start in Denver.
If Santana is coming up to pitch out of the bullpen, that would be a bit suspect to me. If this were August, I’d be more inclined to agree with it. But since it’s the end of May, I doubt the Dodgers would start his service clock just to pitch out of the bullpen — especially since there’s a need in the starting rotation. If their intention is to keep him in the bullpen the rest of the season (performance-dependent, obviously), then I guess that’d be OK. But my hope is that they let him start and see how it goes — at least until Maeda comes back. And if Santana is around to start, then the Dodgers wouldn’t have to rush Maeda back, as Dave Roberts said it could be a “DL situation” for him.
The Dodgers are no strangers to pushing their rookies not only aggressively through the minors, but also in the majors. They aren’t afraid to call on a young guy to help contribute. Santana, No. 9 in my Top 100, has a great makeup, really good stuff and the drive to succeed. Seriously, if you had told me two years ago that he’d be slated to make an MLB start in 2018 — no matter when — I wouldn’t have believed you.
This might just be temporary, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing. But this is a results-based game, and if he’s pitching well, the Dodgers might find a way to keep him up. We’re a ways off from that, but this is an exciting move for the team to make and for Santana himself. We’ll see how he takes to MLB action. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there’s a bit of a struggle early (just look at Buehler last year), but he has the stuff and head on his shoulder to work through it and be a productive and capable pitcher.
And to close, here’s a fun fact, courtesy of J.P. Hoornstra.
— J.P. Hoornstra (@jphoornstra) March 9, 2018