"Who is Danny Santana?" was a pretty popular question in Twins territory when the 23-year old was promoted to the majors in early May. After all, the fifteenth ranked prospect (according to John Sickels) in any organization, even one as deep in minor league talent as the Twins, isn't going to be a household name. Hitting .324/.361/.488 and being worth more than two wins over less than half a season will do a lot for your name recognition, however, and there is no doubt that Santana has been one of the best parts of another difficult season in Minnesota.
Now that we're better acquainted, the better, tougher question is "What is Danny Santana?"
I mean that in a couple of ways, and we should talk about both of them. First and foremost, I mean his hitting.
We can probably all agree that Santana is not likely a .324/.361/.488 hitter going forward. If he qualified, that would be the 10th best OPS in the American League, just ahead of Robinson Cano. He's performed well above even his 90th percentile projection from Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system, something no one could have predicted going into this year. While that fundamentally changes who these systems believe that he will be in the future, it also doesn't mean we can discount his past as a relatively unimpressive minor league prospect.
In fact, I find it hard to believe that he'll even be much better than league average offensively over the long term. That's not a criticism, though it probably sounds like it. He strikes out at almost exactly the league rate, while walking just 4.6 percent of the time. He has only made slightly more contact than the average major leaguer, but the bulk of his success can be traced to his .394 batting average on balls in play. For some context, consider that the rest of the American League has a .298 BABIP. Now, I'm not one to completely rain on Santana's parade. Despite his lack of playing time, he's in the top 20 in the AL in both infield and bunt hits. He's just two back of Alex Rios for the lead in triples. Santana's speed means that his BABIP will stay high as long as his legs stay healthy, even if it can't stay at .394 forever. If it were to drop to, say, .340, Santana would be hitting around .282 with a .321 OBP. That's still better than American League shortstops did in 2014, and roughly equal to what centerfielders contributed on offense. That's still a good player.
So what can the Twins expect out of him in 2015? Lately, I've been thinking that Santana reminds me a lot of Cristian Guzman. Wait, come back! Don't walk away! I don't mean the Guzman who came up in 1999, the 21 year old shortstop who didn't know how to hit or use his speed. And I don't mean the Guzman from 2002-2004, who was simply awful. No, I mean Cristian Guzman at 23 years old, in 2001, for that brief shining moment hitting .302/.337/.477, leading the American League in triples, posting a 111 OPS+, and being worth almost five wins. That Cristian Guzman also walked in just four percent of his at bats and had a high BABIP (.343). After that, perhaps because of his shoulder problems, Guzman essentially stopped hitting balls in the air and was done as a valuable player for the next several years. On the other hand, even with a natural regression, Guzman still should have been a decent player for a few years, worth in excess of two wins through his twenties. When Santana hits, I feel the same level of excitement I did back in 2001 whenever Guzman came to the plate, knowing that anything could happen. Guzman was one of the most dynamic players on that 2001 team before his injury, and I'm hopeful that that sliver of Guzy's past is an indication of Santana's future.
Guzman, of course, played shortstop, which leads us to the second part of the question, is Danny Santana an infielder or an outfielder?
On the one hand, this doesn't matter much. Barring some unexpected off-season maneuvering or Miguel Sano forcing his way onto the roster, Santana, Hicks, Plouffe, and Escobar will probably all be in the starting lineup on Opening Day of next year. Either Santana will be at short, pushing Escobar to third, Plouffe to left field and Hicks to center, or everyone will stay where they're currently at, with Hicks moving to left field. On the other hand, I'm entirely behind whichever defensive alignment encourages the Twins to be most patient with the elite prospects they'll have available next year.
We all know about the ancient prophecy that centerfield is promised to The One True Buxton when he comes into his kingdom, unless he gets run over by a bus (which, given the season he's suffered through, is entirely plausible), but it's unclear still what this lost year does to Buxton's overall timeline. Will the Twins slow him down, giving him almost an entire season to master double- and triple-A? As much as I can't wait to watch Byron Buxton, I think it's more important that he work out the kinks before the Twins throw him in the deep end like they did with Aaron Hicks (not that Hicks and Buxton are analogous from a talent standpoint). That decision, of course, wound up being disastrous for both Hicks and the Twins. Keeping Santana in centerfield to start 2015 allows the Twins to bring Buxton along organically, promoting him only when he's really ready to contribute. As much as fans have complained about Hicks, imagine what would happen if Buxton was mishandled. If, after years of waiting for the Messiah, he showed up and looked more like Brian than the son of God. Better to let Santana prepare the way and smooth the outfield grass in the meantime.