BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first time Edgar Santana picked up a baseball, his trainer was uncertain. How could Santana be 19 years old? He looked younger, for one thing, and he was uncommonly old to be so new to the game.The trainer couldn't believe Santana's first radar gun reading off
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The first time Edgar Santana picked up a baseball, his trainer was uncertain. How could Santana be 19 years old? He looked younger, for one thing, and he was uncommonly old to be so new to the game.
The trainer couldn't believe Santana's first radar gun reading off the mound, either: 85 mph.
"He said, 'This is crazy,'" Santana said. "'You've never pitched, never thrown the ball and you throw 85.'"
Nelson Calvo, one of Santana's trainers, told him he could pitch. Santana began to believe it. Now 25 years old, he is in Major League camp with the Pirates, one step away from completing his late-starting journey to Pittsburgh.
"This is my dream. I want to be in the big leagues," Santana said. "I want to help the team. I want to make my family proud."
Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo and scout Juan Mercado signed Santana on Oct. 12, 2013, four days before his 22nd birthday. Top international prospects typically sign when they're 16, and they're scouted extensively years before that. By industry standards, Santana was old.
Why the late start?
After he graduated from high school, Santana's parents hoped he would continue his education. They wanted him to be a teacher. They didn't think baseball was an option for Santana. After all, he'd never played the game.
But his cousin, Victor Familia, had another idea. He figured Santana was athletic and tall, now listed at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, with a strong right arm. Familia told Santana he could play baseball. As it turned out, and as his first 85 mph fastball proved, he had a natural feel for it.
Santana spent his first season at the Pirates' complex in the Dominican Republic, where coach Jairo Cuevas taught him to throw a slider. The pitch drew rave reviews last season as he jumped from Class A Advanced Bradenton to Double-A Altoona and finished the year with Triple-A Indianapolis.
Overall, he posted a 2.71 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings over 43 appearances. Catcher Jacob Stallings saw plenty of hitters walk away with their eyebrows raised after looking for Santana's mid-90s fastball then flailing at his slider.
"It's pretty nasty," Stallings said.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said his phone lit up in October and November with reports of Santana's dominance in the Arizona Fall League. Now, Santana's wipeout breaking ball is turning heads in Spring Training.
"He's got a slider that seems to have a left-turn signal on it," Hurdle said Wednesday after Santana struck out two Twins in a perfect inning. "That's really sharp."
Hurdle also speaks highly of Santana's makeup. Santana, the Pirates' No. 25 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, said he embraces the pressure that comes with being a back-end reliever, showing a willingness and fearlessness that intrigues the Pirates.
"Santana's a very interesting young man," Hurdle said. "He's a confident young man. He's got quiet confidence. … He's been a lot of fun to have in camp."
With limited experience in Triple-A and a handful of other options available, Santana probably won't crack the Pirates' Opening Day roster. But his debut could come at some point this season, only six years after his first pitch.
"I think different than other players. I'm a little bit older," Santana said. "I have to work more than young guys. I think about my family. I put more pressure on myself to try to be better every day."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.