It wasn’t exactly Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock, but on January 8, 2004, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled off a trade that was as lopsided as it gets. DD must have approached the Seattle Mariners with a gun and a mask.
On that day, Dombrowski traded infielder Ramon Santiago for Carlos Guillen.
You heard me.
Ramon Santiago for Carlos Guillen, straight up.
To add insult to injury, Dombrowski ended up with Santiago, too, a couple years later, when “Santy” signed with the Tigers as a free agent in January 2006.
Guillen, meanwhile, was arguably the heart and soul of a Tigers team that made the World Series in 2006 and contended pretty much every year after—and is still contending some two years after Guillen last played.
The diminutive infielder can’t hit his way out of a paper bag these days. He’s a switch-hitter, but maybe it’s more bait and switch. Unless there’s an injury, Santiago gets on the field about as often as a starting pitcher. He’s been the 24th or 25th man in Detroit for years.
It wasn’t always that way.
There was a time when the Tigers trotted Santiago out on most days, counting on him as a daily player, which is kind of like running your car everyday on one of those tiny spare tires.
The year was 2003. Santiago appeared in 141 games, splitting time between second base and shortstop. He hit a robust .225.
That year, Santiago fit right in. The Tigers lost 119 games in 2003. They were the 1962 Mets, redux.
It was that winter, following that nightmare season, when Dombrowski somehow convinced the Mariners to take Santiago off his hands for Guillen, even up. Guillen was a six-year veteran whose batting average improved for four straight years—.158 to .257 to .259 to .261 to .276. He was 28 years old, just entering his prime.
The Mariners bit. Guillen came to Detroit and batted .318, .320, .320 and .296 in his first four years as a Tiger. In 2007, Guillen had 102 RBI and was, at the time, one of the best shortstops in baseball.
The term “utility player” can be deadly accurate or it can minimize the impact a player has on his team. It’s like “character actor” in Hollywood.
Santiago plays second, third and shortstop. He won’t hurt you at any of those positions, defensively. He won’t help you much with the bat, either. Since being reacquired by the Tigers in 2006, Santiago hasn’t had more than 320 at-bats in any given season. But he’s been like an old, comfortable shoe.
Santiago is also the most senior Tiger, gaining that status after Brandon Inge was cashiered last year.
Ramon Santiago made his big league debut on May 17, 2002 for a Tigers team that was so dysfunctional, it’s a wonder they never ended up on The Jerry Springer Show.
The manager was an overwhelmed Luis Pujols, who took over after Phil Garner and GM Randy Smith were fired by Dombrowski in the season’s first week.
Pujols was as respected as a substitute teacher. The Tigers were an out of control bunch, losing games and fighting amongst themselves. It was, without question, the low point of Dombrowski’s 12-year reign as team president.
So it turned out that the Tigers had no one better to man the middle of the infield in 2003 than Santiago, who was 24 and probably in over his head as an everyday player. But he gave it a shot, played his hardest, hit his .225 and kept his mouth shut, even when there was certainly a lot to talk about.
In Seattle, Santiago barely got off the bench. He played a grand total of 27 games in 2004-05. He went 8-for-47.
The Tigers, remembering Santiago for his professionalism in a dark era, came calling when they needed a backup infielder in 2006. Santiago signed as a free agent and has been a Tiger ever since, making this his 10th season as a Tiger out of his 12 in the big leagues.
Manager Jim Leyland has gone on record time and again, praising Santiago for his work ethic, his character and his quiet dignity.
Even in these days of widespread rancor on the Internet and on sports talk radio, where sentiment means jack squat, Santiago has mostly been able to escape the fans’ wrath. Having lightning rods around such as Inge, Jose Valverde, Phil Coke and Ryan Raburn in the past few years have helped Santiago stay under the radar.
This year has been trying, however, for Ramon Santiago.
His batting average has been low even by Santiago standards. He literally has been hitting his weight—which is around 160, being generous.
Injuries have thrust “Santy” back into the spotlight.
First, it was second baseman Omar Infante, who went down before the All-Star break with a deep shin contusion after being upended on a controversial slide by Toronto’s Colby Rasmus.
Santiago stepped in, sharing time with minor league call-up Hernan Perez at second base. As usual, Santy didn’t hit much, but his glove was appreciated.
Then third baseman Miguel Cabrera was lost for most of this past week with a sore hip flexor. Santiago started at third base on Friday night instead of usual replacement Don Kelly, presumably so Leyland could have an extra right-handed bat against Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.
Santiago responded with a double in the fifth inning that was part of a two-run rally that enabled the Tigers to beat back the Phillies, 2-1. The interim third baseman made some defensive gems of plays as well.
Leyland, paid the big bucks to be oh-so-wise, gave a very unscientific explanation for his decision to use Santiago at third base on Friday night.
“I thought, ‘Why not give Santy a shot? Kelly has played quite a few games in a row,’” the manager told the scribes and the microphone thrusters after the game, per the Detroit Free Press.
Sometimes, managing is nothing more than playing a hunch.
Santiago, who’s normally about as quotable as a clam with lockjaw, spoke briefly Friday night about his 2013 struggles.
“It’s good to be talking about Santiago after a game,” Leyland said after the tight win over Philly.
Talking about Santiago has never been a priority in Detroit, despite his being a Tiger for all but two years since 2002.
He’s not even really known for being the guy who was once traded for Carlos Guillen. Tigers fans should at least give him that.