Dennis Santana puts weight behind his push to make the Dodgers bullpen
Dennis Santana had one objective this offseason: gain weight. So he focused on lifting heavy, not the agility stuff he devoted his time to in previous winters, and he ate and ate and ate.
Santana devoured the standard fare on his Dominican Republic homeland — rice and beans. Not much mangú, though. That’s too filling. His other cuisine of choice living in Arizona with his family was Mexican. He’s a taco connoisseur. His favorite? Traditional birria.
“The one that they shred and put a little salsa on, and all that,” Santana said in Spanish on a recent video call.
By the time he reported to spring training for the Dodgers, the slender 24-year-old right-hander wasn’t as slender. He added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame. He’s healthy and stronger, and the combination has made a difference.
Santana is one of the brightest spots with two weeks remaining in camp. He’s in position to snatch a spot on the Dodgers’ opening day roster as a reliever, perhaps as a starter-turned-long-reliever tasked to throw multiple innings every few days.
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Cracking the roster out of camp is one of Santana’s goals in 2021. But he’s been in the majors before. He wants more.
“Get there and establish myself,” Santana said. “I think this is the year.”
Santana made his major league debut and has appeared in the majors each of the last three seasons. His stints, however, have been short and impacted by injuries.
In 2018, after debuting with 3 2/3 innings as a reliever, Santana was scheduled to make his first start six days later in Pittsburgh. Instead, he was scratched after warming up in the bullpen. The next day, he was placed on the 10-day injured list with right rotator cuff inflammation. The day after that, he was transferred to the 60-day IL and ruled out for the season.
In all, he’s pitched in just 16 major league games, all as a reliever. Last season, he made 12 appearances, almost entirely in low-leverage spots. That could change in 2021.
“I just see him as a guy that gets both [lefties and righties] out,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “and pitching valuable innings.”
Santana said maturity and self-confidence bolstered his abilities. On the mound, Roberts noted Santana’s fastball velocity has hovered from 94 to 97 mph, his slider has been tight, and his changeup has been effective against left-handed hitters. Most importantly, his command has been “as good as anybody in our camp.”
In four Cactus League outings, Santana has given up one hit with no walks and five strikeouts across four innings. He hasn’t thrown in an exhibition game since March 10, but he recently pitched on a backfield at Camelback Ranch and is scheduled to pitch for the Dodgers on Thursday.
Santana’s emergence comes as questions linger for the Dodgers’ bullpen, which is expected to feature eight relievers to begin the season. Joe Kelly and Brusdar Graterol, two right-handers initially projected to occupy bullpen vacancies, have yet to appear in a Cactus League game for undisclosed reasons.
Roberts said Graterol completed his second 25-pitch bullpen session in a week Wednesday, this time with breaking balls. He’s likelier to be ready for the season than Kelly, who has yet to throw breaking pitches in a bullpen session. The right-hander’s time with the Dodgers has been hindered by injuries, which included an unspecified shoulder problem that required a procedure last season while he was on the injured list for a month.
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Also potentially helping Santana’s standing is that a second left-hander hasn’t surfaced with a strong case for a bullpen spot alongside lefty Victor González.
“I don’t know if it’s something that we have to have,” Roberts said. “We’re going to go with the best available option, or the best available player.”
The best available could include Santana for the first time. It’s the reason he lifted all those weights and ate all that food.
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