Johan changed Twins history as Rule 5 pick

December 13th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- still remembers the day he arrived in Florida for his first Spring Training with the Minnesota Twins, because it's still striking to him that Terry Ryan and Bill Smith -- his new general manager and assistant general manager -- were waiting to personally pick him up from Southwest Florida International Airport.

The 20-year-old stepped out of the airport with only one suitcase -- and no equipment bags -- because his agent had arranged for all of his gear to be sent ahead to the clubhouse. Santana still remembers that being a point of confusion for his new bosses, and they still joke about it whenever they talk about the beginning of his time with the Twins.

"All I have here are my shoes and my glove in my suitcase," Santana remembers with a laugh. "Everything else should be at the clubhouse. I remember that, because we always go back to that, [them saying,] 'Oh my god, what are we getting into?'"

In fact, what they'd gotten into was the genesis of one of the most impactful careers in the recent history of the Minnesota Twins, though that would have been beyond their wildest expectations at the time.

That journey began exactly 22 years ago, on Dec. 13, 1999, amid one of the more chaotic settings you'll find in the organized baseball world: the oft-overlooked Rule 5 Draft.

"I didn't even know what the [Rule 5] was," Santana said.

These days, that draft marks the de facto end of the annual Winter Meetings, with tables full of team staff members juxtaposed against the hubbub of media, officials and coaches with packed bags, saying their goodbyes before hopping on flights scattering them across the country. In the meantime, swaps of players who didn't make the cut to populate the fringes of 40-man rosters (and Minor League reserve rosters) are announced at a dizzying rate.

Coming off an MLB-worst 63-97 finish in the 1999 season, the Twins held the first pick in that Rule 5 Draft. The Florida Marlins were slated to pick one slot behind them, and they were quite set on taking right-handed reliever Jared Camp, who had pitched to a 2.81 ERA across three levels with the Cleveland organization.

But in Minnesota's front office, a pair of scouts in the Midwest League had identified a young left-hander pitching in Class A in the Astros' organization who they felt would be a future Major League starting pitcher.

"I'll always go back to Jose Marzan and Billy Milos, who are the two guys that ultimately put their neck on the line and said, 'Listen, this guy's pretty good. We should consider taking him,'" Ryan said. "And they were right."

Not knowing that, the Marlins were worried that the Twins wanted Camp, too, and they got in touch with Ryan and proposed a swap of picks to ensure they got their man. They exchanged names the day of the draft, and it resulted in the Twins picking Camp at No. 1 and the Marlins selecting Santana at No. 2. The teams then swapped players, with the Marlins also sending $50,000 to the Twins as each club got the prospect it wanted all along.

Meanwhile, Santana was an ocean away playing winter ball in Venezuela under manager Phil Regan, who had told the young left-hander that there was a chance he could play in the Majors the following season -- with the Minnesota Twins. Santana's agent, Peter Greenberg, first called with the news that he'd been selected by the Marlins -- but to hold on, because there was a possible trade in the works with the Twins.

"I was like, 'Phil was right when he told me I was going to be in the big leagues with Minnesota,'" Santana said. "Something that, to me, it was a dream. I couldn't believe it. That's how everything happened, and 30 minutes later, Peter called me back and he said, 'Johan, congratulations again. Now it's official, you're going to be a Minnesota Twin next year.'"

According to Ryan, the move that brought Santana to Minnesota was a pure scouting success on the part of Marzan and Milos. The Astros didn't make room on their 40-man roster for the young left-hander who had pitched to a 4.66 ERA in Class A alongside other prospects like Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding, against the vehement protests of their own scout, Andres Reiner, who had originally signed Santana out of Venezuela.

"I fought so much to get him on the roster that you wouldn't believe it," Reiner told the New York Times in 2008, years before his death in '16. "But I was one voice among so many."

"He told Houston that they were making a big mistake by letting me go," Santana said. "He was hoping to get me back from the Twins. Even when I got to Minnesota, when I got here to Fort Myers, he would call me to ask me how I was doing. He was always making sure that I was fine and they would try to do whatever it took to get me back. And then that never happened."

Though it might seem jarring to jump from A ball all the way to the big leagues with a new organization, Santana was thrilled for his big league dream to come true. He knew he wanted to stay in Minnesota and realize his big league dreams in the Twin Cities.

It helped immediately that two of his new Twins teammates, LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Mientkiewicz, were his winter ball teammates with Navegantes del Magallanes that year. They quickly became close, and Hawkins was there for Santana every step of the way as a mentor and friend for the youngster's transition to the Twins.

"The biggest question mark that you have is, 'Are they going to welcome me or not?'" Santana said. "With Dougie and LaTroy being part of it, the whole team, they made me feel welcome right away. LaTroy was waiting for me, then you get to know people like David Ortiz and Cristian Guzman, they make you feel welcome right away."

Santana would typically have been a risky selection because he was a 20-year-old from A ball, and any players selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain in the Majors for the entire season or be offered back to their original team.

But for the struggling Twins, immediate performance was less of a concern, and it quickly became clear to Ryan and manager Tom Kelly during that first Spring Training that they had a prime athlete and important future piece on their hands. The circumstances were right. They simply couldn't let him go.

"It wasn't very tough [to keep him in the Majors], because I think all of us, once we got organized and saw him enough, I think we all felt pretty good that he had a chance to be a high-ceiling pitcher at some point," Ryan said. "We can make this work. And we'll get through the year. ... It wasn't all that difficult. You just know that, well, this guy's a keeper."

They endured Santana's 6.49 ERA out of the bullpen in 2000, used him as a long reliever and spot starter for parts of two seasons, and sent him to Triple-A for part of the '02 season to lock in his signature changeup and get him in a starting rhythm before he returned and quickly became Minnesota's unquestioned ace and one of the best starting pitchers in the game.

Santana, of course, won two Cy Young Awards in '04 and '06, claiming the pitching Triple Crown in the latter year. He and the core around him brought four division titles to Minnesota in five seasons -- '02, '03, '04 and '06. He'll go down as not only the best Rule 5 selection in Twins history, but one of the best in baseball history -- and it all started as a young Class A pitcher in that Rule 5 Draft.

"I give this advice to younger players: 'Whatever you do, just be your best, Because you never know who's watching,'" Santana said.

He was right. A pair of Twins scouts had been fixated on him -- and it changed the course of Minnesota baseball history.

"The whole organization and the group of guys we had, we were able to not only win those divisions, but to keep the Twins in Minnesota," Santana said. "You remember they were talking about getting rid of a couple of teams and moving teams, and we were one of them."

"We were begging for good things to happen to the organization back then," Ryan said. "If you do any history, that's right around that area where contraction, they'd started talking about it. He was a piece of turning the organization around, a big piece. Every organization in the game is looking for a number-one starter. He was a number-one starter."