October 3, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Lynn Henning

Ramon Santiago's stock reaches new level

Ramon Santiago has picked a fine time to pick up the pace offensively. He's batting .315 (17-of-54) since the start of September. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)

Detroit

One of Jim Leyland's surprises in spring training before the 2006 season was how rapidly young, or lower-profile, players caught the new manager's eye.

Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya were kid pitchers who pushed for roster spots almost from the day Leyland saw them burning holes in catcher's mitts in the Tigertown bullpen.

He saw an infielder he liked as his backup at shortstop and second base: Ramon Santiago, who had played for the Tigers in 2002 and '03 before being traded to Seattle. He was back with the Tigers after the Mariners released him during the 2005-06 offseason.

Santiago now has played four straight seasons with the Tigers and never has had higher stock or status. Leyland had him in the lineup for the 92nd time Friday as the Tigers got ready to play the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park in a game that could've drawn the Tigers closer to a spot in the postseason.

Santiago's playing time has soared this season. He played in 58 games in 2008, 32 in '07 and 43 in '06. Should the playoffs involve Leyland's team, Santiago will have a shot at crowding the 100-game mark -- significant duty when players as solid as Everett and as talented as Placido Polanco are Leyland's up-the-middle infield regulars.

Better with age

Santiago is six weeks past his 30th birthday. He was batting .271 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs as the Tigers got ready for Jake Peavy, a White Sox right-hander, which is why the switch-hitting Santiago was playing ahead of the team's established starter at shortstop, Everett, a right-handed hitter.

"He's very good at second base or shortstop," Leyland said, explaining what he liked about Santiago in March 2006 -- and in October 2009. "And he's a wonderful kid."

What Leyland saw in Santiago that first spring in Florida was a rock-solid defensive player with versatility. Santiago could play with equal command at short or second. He had soft hands and a quick release on relays. He had a plus arm.

And he got to everything hit his way. A reliable backup infielder's great gift is that he comes with an insurance policy. Need to replace your starter in the late innings? You need a fill-in who can suck up ground balls the way your Hoover inhales cracker crumbs.

That was Santiago. It was Santiago two weeks ago, in Minneapolis, when he slipped into the hole at shortstop, backhanded Nick Punto's hot grounder headed to left field, and whipped a snap-throw to Polanco at second to help nail down a huge Sunday victory over the Twins

His hitting has been the surprise this year. Santiago didn't cut it when the Tigers tried to make him a starting shortstop in 2003, when he was only 23. He played 141 games during the Tigers' anguished '03 season, when they finished 43-119. Santiago seemed in good company.

He batted .225. He hit two home runs. He had 29 RBIs.

But after Santiago returned to Detroit, and after Leyland decided to carry him only because his glove was so failsafe, Santiago got busy making changes. Mostly, with his body.

Hard work pays off

He hit the Dominican Republic beach for Marine Corps-style workouts with David Ortiz and other Dominican habitués. He hit the weights, as well, hoping to whack the baseball with more punch.

He also was getting older. And smarter. He was only 26 when Leyland added him to the roster. He had time to yet develop, even if he was only playing semi-regularly, mostly because Leyland has always maintained that Santiago's build makes him vulnerable to wearing down if he plays too frequently. It's then that his bat wilts, at least in Leyland's view.

"You never agree," Santiago said Friday, smiling at the skipper's assessment. "Ask any player that question. Everyone wants to play.

"I'm not gonna lie. But I'm happy with my role. I want to be a Tiger forever."

Forever might be a stretch, but think back to early '06, when a kid the Tigers had traded to the Mariners (for Carlos Guillen) and then re-signed showed up in Florida trying to win a job.

It is almost four years later. And an exceedingly valuable player has done nothing but get better, and more essential.

Underestimate this man at your own risk.

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