Hunter Greene gets most of the hype among Reds pitching prospects. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed are the big names vying for chances in Triple-A.
But down in Double-A Pensacola, Tony Santillan is quietly having a breakthrough season. In the process, he’s becoming someone who could conceivably contribute to the big-league club as soon as next season if the chips fall the right way.
The 21-year-old right-hander was selected by the Reds in the second-round (49th pick) of the 2015 draft. He was known for his powerful arm coming out of Seguin High School in Texas, but erratic control kept him from vaulting into the first round. Here was the scouting report on Santillan at the time he was selected (courtesy of MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon):
Santillan is a power pitcher with scouting reports showing him throwing his fastball from 93-95 mph with the ability to reach 98 mph. He also has a strong 12-to-6 curveball that comes to hitters in the mid-80s.
However, Santillan is far from a finished product and will need some work. He also lacks a changeup, but the organization will develop him as a starter.
Through his first two professional seasons and 89 innings, his raw ability was on full display (26.6 percent strikeout rate). However, so was his biggest weakness (13.2 percent walk rate), and it’s part of why he had disappointing results overall (5.16 ERA, 4.74 FIP). The former kept him on prospect radars, but the latter prevented him from becoming a bona fide top-100 prospect or a hot name among Reds fans looking for hope in the future.
Santillan made significant strides in his game in 2017, particularly with his changeup, which he converted from an inconsistent-at-best offering into a pitch that flashes as plus. He also continued to work on a slider that also has plus potential, shying away from the 12-6 curveball he threw in high school. He spent the whole season in Low-A Dayton and became the ace of the Dragons’ pitching staff, posting a 3.38 ERA (3.77 FIP, 3.89 xFIP) in 128 innings. He sacrificed some strikeouts (24.0 K%), reducing his walks (10.0 BB%) in the process. Still, there was much work to be done if he was to fulfill his potential, though he had time on his side as a 20-year-old.
If his 2018 season is any indication, he’s well on his way to reaching his ceiling and learning the art of pitching rather than simply throwing hard. Santillan started the 2018 season in High-A Daytona; he was in Double-A by midseason. In 15 starts and 86 2/3 innings with the Tortugas, he put up a 2.70 ERA (3.52 FIP, 3.73 xFIP). While his strikeout numbers fell to a merely average level (20.2 K%), a significant development occurred with his control. He walked only 6.1 percent of the hitters he faced in the Florida State League, by far his best mark at any stop in his minor-league career.
Santillan was rewarded with a promotion to Pensacola on July 5 and hasn’t missed a beat facing Southern League batters. Through his first six starts at the Double-A level, he holds a 1.78 ERA (2.53 FIP, 3.18 xFIP). He’s brought his strikeout rate up (24.7%), while his walk rate has fallen even further (5.5%). Despite an average ground-ball rate (43.8%) for the full season, Santillan gives up very few home runs (six in 122 innings this season, 23 in 339 career innings), demonstrating his ability to limit hard contact. He’s also forcing a ridiculous amount of infield pop-ups, with 32.0 percent of all flyballs he’s allowed this season failing to leave the infield.
Here’s a look at a full at-bat from his 11-strikeout performance on July 30:
Compared to last year, Santillan seems to have simplified his delivery. While he also pitched out of a modified stretch instead of a traditional wind-up, there’s much less movement to his delivery this year. In addition to being more compact to the plate, he has also slowed things down. These factors seemingly combine to make his delivery more repeatable and have likely played a role in his improved command in 2018.
It was a bit surprising to see him left off of every reputable midseason top-100 list, but MLB Pipeline rated him as the organization’s fifth-best prospect and Doug Gray put him at No. 4. An uptick in strikeouts would certainly see him crack the top 100 rankings heading into next season.
If these strides continue and he can miss more bats, could Santillan reasonably make a run at the Reds’ starting rotation in 2019, as Chad Dotson wondered on Twitter? After all, the staff is far from set as we sit here on August 7. Aside from Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani, there are few certainties when looking toward next year. Tyler Mahle has shown he can be a big-league pitcher despite his recent hardships, so he figures to get an inside track to a job. Homer Bailey’s contract will put him in the mix as well. Barring a big-name free agent signing, that leaves the fifth spot to the likes of Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, and Lucas Sims. (Amir Garrett should also be in that conversation, but it seems increasingly unlikely to happen, which is a shame.)
That’s a whole lot of competition for Santillan to beat out in spring training, especially considering he has yet to throw in Triple-A and likely won’t in 2018. But Santillan is arguably more talented than every other pitcher who figures to be in that competition. Baseball America writes that his stuff rivals nearly every other pitcher in the minors; with a sizzling fastball in the mid-90s, a biting slider that can hit the low-90s, and a potentially devastating changeup that sits in the high-80s, Santillan makes it hard to disagree with that assessment.
If the right-hander blows everyone away next spring, would the Reds be aggressive and move him to Cincinnati ahead of schedule? From afar, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the front office’s expectation to compete could convince them to accelerate the timeline on Santillan. There’s also some precedent in place for the team to promote pitchers to the big leagues straight from Double-A when warranted (see: Castillo).
But even if that doesn’t happen, Santillan deserves more attention than he’s getting — both at a local and national level.