The Next Dodger Ace
Dodgers starting pitcher Dennis Santana is banging on the door of the major leagues. The 22-year old converted shortstop has worked his way up to Triple-A Oklahoma City by blowing hitters away with a live arm and an arsenal of three plus-pitches. During his first start for OKC, Santana continued to impress by firing six shutout innings while allowing only three hits, no walks and striking out eleven batters. Right now he is owned in 8% of Fantrax leagues. That number should be higher because Santana is one of this minor’s fastest rising talents.
Santana has emerged as a dynamic option for the Dodgers in 2018 and beyond. The right-hander’s array of plus offerings includes a moving fastball, slider and change-up. Each of these pitches can be thrown consistently for strikes, though his fastball/slider combo is what makes him a future star. Right now, Santana is sporting a strikeout percentage of 34.1% after 44.2 innings. While that strikeout rate is higher than the 24.5% he put up last season, he has struck out more than a batter per inning every season. Best of all, the youngster has managed to walk far fewer batters than he did during his initial taste of Double-A.
After reaching Double-A in July 2017, Santana struggled to harness his offerings. He finished his first 32.2 innings at the level with an unimpressive 6.34 walks-per-nine. If there is any way to take the shine off of a K/9 ratio of over 10, this is it. Santana’s control issues against the stiffer competition, when considered alongside the depth of the Dodgers’ organization, led many to believe that Santana would be best suited as a late-inning arm in LA. But this season he has reined in his control issues and limited the damage of free passes.
It has been exciting to see the young pitcher continue to improve. During his second stint with the Tulsa Drillers, Santana smoked the overmatched competition to open up the season. He earned his promotion to Triple-A by striking out 51 batters in 38.2 innings, while only walking 14. That walk rate represents a much improved 3.26 per nine innings. In the same span, he managed to hold opponents to a batting average of .182. The young righty’s continued effectiveness as a strikeout pitcher–plus his drastically improved control–has many wondering how high his ceiling is.
The Dodgers’ brass is curious. They added him to the 40-man roster in November 2017 in spite of his uneven Double-A debut. Dodger fans everywhere must also be excited to see the youngster continuing to develop. Especially when two other top arms in the Dodger system, hyped prospects Yadier Alvarez and Mitchell White, seem to have stalled out a bit at Double-A. Santana has clearly been able to improve and, in doing so, has effectively leap-frogged both players and positioned himself for a 2018 call-up.
Right now one would have to assume that Santana will likely end up getting his first taste of the majors in a bullpen role. Stamina was considered to be a factor in Santana’s ineffectiveness down the stretch with Tulsa last season. As a result, I wouldn’t imagine the Dodgers would want to push Santana beyond 120 or 140 innings this season. Knowing that he has already pitched 44.2 innings, I’d predict he’s at Triple-A for another 60 to 80 innings to get plenty of exposure to more advanced hitters. If all goes to plan, it looks like we can expect his call to come sometime in August or September when rosters expand to help anchor the bullpen as the team fights for a playoff spot in the NL West.
Long term, I think Santana looks somewhat similar to another NL West pitcher: Dinelson Lamet. Both pitchers have terrific swing-and-miss offerings. While Santana’s current level of control appears stronger than Lamet’s, like Lamet I think Santana will maintain a level of command that can detract somewhat from his overall value. That’s not to say that the high-amount of Ks he produces won’t be worth starting him every time he toes the rubber. It’s also important to mention that Dennis Santana generates groundballs at a far higher rate than Lamet did, so perhaps he could be even better.
Regardless, the Ks will play and reward owners who bought in early. Many people will find out about Santana when he gets his call, but no matter when that call comes, now is the time to go get him.