Hunter Greene gets most of the hype among Reds pitching prospects. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed are the big names vying for chances in Triple-A.

But down in Double-A Pensacola, Tony Santillan is quietly having a breakthrough season. In the process, he’s becoming someone who could conceivably contribute to the big-league club as soon as next season if the chips fall the right way.

The 21-year-old right-hander was selected by the Reds in the second-round (49th pick) of the 2015 draft. He was known for his powerful arm coming out of Seguin High School in Texas, but erratic control kept him from vaulting into the first round. Here was the scouting report on Santillan at the time he was selected (courtesy of’s Mark Sheldon):

Santillan is a power pitcher with scouting reports showing him throwing his fastball from 93-95 mph with the ability to reach 98 mph. He also has a strong 12-to-6 curveball that comes to hitters in the mid-80s.

However, Santillan is far from a finished product and will need some work. He also lacks a changeup, but the organization will develop him as a starter.

Through his first two professional seasons and 89 innings, his raw ability was on full display (26.6 percent strikeout rate). However, so was his biggest weakness (13.2 percent walk rate), and it’s part of why he had disappointing results overall (5.16 ERA, 4.74 FIP). The former kept him on prospect radars, but the latter prevented him from becoming a bona fide top-100 prospect or a hot name among Reds fans looking for hope in the future.

Santillan made significant strides in his game in 2017, particularly with his changeup, which he converted from an inconsistent-at-best offering into a pitch that flashes as plus. He also continued to work on a slider that also has plus potential, shying away from the 12-6 curveball he threw in high school. He spent the whole season in Low-A Dayton and became the ace of the Dragons’ pitching staff, posting a 3.38 ERA (3.77 FIP, 3.89 xFIP) in 128 innings. He sacrificed some strikeouts (24.0 K%), reducing his walks (10.0 BB%) in the process. Still, there was much work to be done if he was to fulfill his potential, though he had time on his side as a 20-year-old.

If his 2018 season is any indication, he’s well on his way to reaching his ceiling and learning the art of pitching rather than simply throwing hard. Santillan started the 2018 season in High-A Daytona; he was in Double-A by midseason. In 15 starts and 86 2/3 innings with the Tortugas, he put up a 2.70 ERA (3.52 FIP, 3.73 xFIP). While his strikeout numbers fell to a merely average level (20.2 K%), a significant development occurred with his control. He walked only 6.1 percent of the hitters he faced in the Florida State League, by far his best mark at any stop in his minor-league career.

Santillan was rewarded with a promotion to Pensacola on July 5 and hasn’t missed a beat facing Southern League batters. Through his first six starts at the Double-A level, he holds a 1.78 ERA (2.53 FIP, 3.18 xFIP). He’s brought his strikeout rate up (24.7%), while his walk rate has fallen even further (5.5%). Despite an average ground-ball rate (43.8%) for the full season, Santillan gives up very few home runs (six in 122 innings this season, 23 in 339 career innings), demonstrating his ability to limit hard contact. He’s also forcing a ridiculous amount of infield pop-ups, with 32.0 percent of all flyballs he’s allowed this season failing to leave the infield.

Here’s a look at a full at-bat from his 11-strikeout performance on July 30:

Compared to last year, Santillan seems to have simplified his delivery. While he also pitched out of a modified stretch instead of a traditional wind-up, there’s much less movement to his delivery this year. In addition to being more compact to the plate, he has also slowed things down. These factors seemingly combine to make his delivery more repeatable and have likely played a role in his improved command in 2018.

It was a bit surprising to see him left off of every reputable midseason top-100 list, but MLB Pipeline rated him as the organization’s fifth-best prospect and Doug Gray put him at No. 4. An uptick in strikeouts would certainly see him crack the top 100 rankings heading into next season.

If these strides continue and he can miss more bats, could Santillan reasonably make a run at the Reds’ starting rotation in 2019, as Chad Dotson wondered on Twitter? After all, the staff is far from set as we sit here on August 7. Aside from Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani, there are few certainties when looking toward next year. Tyler Mahle has shown he can be a big-league pitcher despite his recent hardships, so he figures to get an inside track to a job. Homer Bailey’s contract will put him in the mix as well. Barring a big-name free agent signing, that leaves the fifth spot to the likes of Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, and Lucas Sims. (Amir Garrett should also be in that conversation, but it seems increasingly unlikely to happen, which is a shame.)

That’s a whole lot of competition for Santillan to beat out in spring training, especially considering he has yet to throw in Triple-A and likely won’t in 2018. But Santillan is arguably more talented than every other pitcher who figures to be in that competition. Baseball America writes that his stuff rivals nearly every other pitcher in the minors; with a sizzling fastball in the mid-90s, a biting slider that can hit the low-90s, and a potentially devastating changeup that sits in the high-80s, Santillan makes it hard to disagree with that assessment.

If the right-hander blows everyone away next spring, would the Reds be aggressive and move him to Cincinnati ahead of schedule? From afar, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the front office’s expectation to compete could convince them to accelerate the timeline on Santillan. There’s also some precedent in place for the team to promote pitchers to the big leagues straight from Double-A when warranted (see: Castillo).

But even if that doesn’t happen, Santillan deserves more attention than he’s getting — both at a local and national level.

11 Responses

  1. Michael Smith

    He is in the latest Baseball America top 100 (#99)

  2. cfd3000

    The Reds have so much potential and so little certainty among starting pitchers. If we see the healthy / good versions of Disco, Castillo, Mahle, Stephenson, Reed, Romano, or even Bailey and Harvey that’s a lot of really good starters. Add Garrett, Lorenzen, Mella and Santillan and it’s an embarrassment of riches. So how is it that not a single one of those guys has emerged as a consistent starter? Not even an ace, just a solid 2 or 3? Is pitching just that hard, or are the Reds going about it all wrong? If the offense is healthy there will be runs scored in 2019. But 7 allowed still beats 5 scored every night. We are so ready for solid starting pitching. Here’s hoping 5 of those 12 guys can make it happen in 2019.

    • David

      Categorically, responding as follows:
      This is Mahle’s first year in the majors. I don’t think the Reds were sleeping on him; he was actually promoted pretty young. He has shown some ability, but now I think his arm is tired and his fastball has lost velocity and movement, hence he has been getting hit hard and goes back to AAA for now.

      I think Stephenson should be up, but someone in the Reds FO is looking at his service time (see Shi Cossack’s comments yesterday) and may want to keep him at AAA for the rest of the season because of that. He is out of options and HAS to be with the Reds next year. Or he is trade bait.

      Reed’s control is still somewhat questionable, but he does have a good arm.

      Castillo, again has great stuff, but has been somewhat inconsistent this year. The first few months of the season he has not been good. Later, much better. Not too concerned about him, but the Reds need to keep running him out there to get experience and become more consistent.

      Garrett had a hip injury last year, and I think the Reds are concerned about his physical stamina as a starter. I think if he is overall strong, he could be a dynamite starter. But, it’s really on him.

      Lorenzen could still be the sleeper, but I have my doubts about his ability to be a good starter.

      Mella has had some shoulder weakness issues, from what I understand, the last few years. This year, he is throwing harder and obviously more effective. He is up with the Reds (low ML service time) and will likely stay up the rest of the season. I would like to see him start. This use as a reliever is not the right direction.
      Santillan is about a season behind these guys (Mahle, Castillo). I think 2019 gets a lot of the logjam cleared at AAA and the ML club, and unless Tony is just absolutely brilliant at AAA next year or injuries, he doesn’t come up until the end of 2019.
      But he is about ready. Some of these guys will fall back, some will step forward, a few might get traded.
      I still think that Sal Romano could be a strong starter, but then again, he has to master more consistent control. At times, when his control is good, he looks almost unhittable. Other times, when he struggles, you wonder what he is doing up here.

      And what will happen to Brandon Finnegan? Is he washed up?

  3. Gerardo Helguera

    The Reds are sleeping on everybody other than Homer Bailey or Matt Harvey.

    • roger garrett

      Exactly.The only way to find out about these young starters is to let them pitch.It always takes longer for pitchers to develop and for my money you don’t even get a true picture until they start 30 or 40 times in the big leagues.I would have to go back and look but I would guess only Castillo and Romano are even close to that number but we are beginning to see more clearer as to what they can do.Mahle hit a wall and needs some time to regroup.The rest have a few starts here and there which basically tell us nothing.Harvey and Homer continue to take starts away from others which is just dumb.

  4. David

    It is a mystery and kind of magical, as to how pitchers actually develop. I don’t think there is one good formula for doing it. Some guys just get it, and some guys just never do.
    I think there is a lot more in regards to how hitters “see” pitchers, versus just what kind of stuff they have (which is what fans see). And sometimes hitters just “guess” right and know what pitch is coming.

  5. Jack

    All comes down to who hits their spots and changes it up every pitch. Just watch Reds pitchers and see who hits the target and who doesnt. Doesnt matter how hard you throw just look at Hellickson the other night. Topped out at 89-90 but he hit his spots and kept it out of the center of the plate. He has given up less than 3 runs a game for most of his starts. Bailey centered up that pitch to Plawecki last night and it ended up in the seats. Who cares if you can throw 97 of you dont know how to pitch. If 97 is your max then you should never use that unless you need it as your punch out pitch. Dial it down to 94-95 and move it up and down . Pitch inside and out as well. Hellickson doesnt have that speed so he keeps it down and either away or inside. But he hits the catchers target every time. Mella has good movement on his pitches. I would like to see him start a few games. Castillo is changing up his velocity as well. Keeping the batter off balance is the key. Bailey has a nice sinker I believe against righties. It starts out coming at them and then sinks in on the edge of the plate. He needs to throw that more. Just my opinion

  6. Scott C

    Of course Mahle Stephenson, Reed, and Finnegan have struggled, they are young. Most young pitchers struggle, very few come in the first two years and blow away the league. With the exception of Stephenson and possibly Castillo the rest still should be learning in AAA, but a lack of a plan (there’s that phrase again) after trading away Cueto and Leake and the injury problems of Homer Bailey has made the Reds rush up these youngsters. The issue stem much further back than the past two years.

  7. BigRedMike

    DeSclafani is a certainty?

    The Reds certainties for next year are

    Castillo 4.91 ERA
    DeSclafani 4.98 ERA
    Bailey 6.19 ERA

    Appears to be more sorting out in order for the Reds to have a Starting rotation that would actually lead to a non last place finish

  8. David

    Where did you see this? Not that I don’t believe you, but was this in the Enquirer or somewhere else?

    Thanks for the tip.

  9. Streamer88

    One thing I’ve noticed the cardinals do: almost all starters have their pitches called for them from the dugout.

    This centralization allows moment by moment analysis of hitter tendencies and weakness as that info can be accessed in the dugout.

    Why aren’t the Reds doing this with their young pitchers?