“Mmnnnn,” was the sound of satisfaction coming from the corner of Rick Williams’ mouth, the Braves’ special assistant in charge of pitching development. He was charting pitches from behind the batting cage.
“That’s familiar,” quipped Gerald Laird, who had just swung and missed something he saw quite a bit facing Santana while with the Tigers and Rangers. “I remember that … a lot.”
Braves infielder and non-roster invitee Mark Hamilton walked off with a broken bat to commemorate his experience of facing Santana, who had the look of a pitcher ready for his first spring training game. That could come as early as Thursday at Disney against the New York Mets.
Despite his late signing, the Braves hope to work Santana into the rotation by about April 12, the first time they’ll need a fifth starter, but from a guy they see more as an ace.
Santana was a free agent after failing to get the four-year, $50 million contract he sought. The Braves got an upper-echelon pitcher at a time when they’ve never needed one more — and the nasty repertoire of a pitcher who no-hit the Indians three years ago.
But what about the rest of the book on Santana? What about the stuff that made Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore rave about him to Braves general manager Frank Wren, who pulled the trigger on a one-year, $14.1 million deal shortly after Medlen and Beachy left starts on consecutive days.
“I can’t say enough good things about Ervin,” Moore said of one of the Royals’ staff aces last season, who was 9-10 in 32 starts and finished ninth in the American League with a 3.24 ERA. “He’s a highly professional person on and off the field and a great teammate, very prepared and extremely poised and confident on the mound. Obviously he pitched very well for us, but he was just a joy to be around.”
That part of the equation was on display Monday morning, too, if you panned over to the golf cart parked in front of the Braves’ dugout. Perched on the front seat, watching all 10 minutes of Santana’s live batting practice session, was Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.
In an otherwise quiet stadium, Kimbrel applauded Santana as he walked off the field, offering him a fist bump and a “Good job, buddy.”
Santana’s nickname “Magic,” hasn’t quite caught on yet. But that will come, for the soft-spoken but engaging dreadlocked 31-year-old. He already is drawing a crowd of young Latin American players around his locker in the Braves’ clubhouse in Lake Buena Vista.
He already has gotten Twitter follows from new teammates such as Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Evan Gattis and others, who have taken note of the upbeat quotes he likes to post from legends of the game.
Santana quoted Warren Spahn before he even became a Brave. In the past few days he’s added quotes from Hank Aaron, Greg Maddux, and this one from Bobby Cox: “You go to Spring Training every year expecting to win.”
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” said Santana, who threw his first live batting practice with Cox watching.
Kimbrel may not know Santana that well yet, or that he changed his name from Johan to Ervin when he first signed with the Angels because another Johan Santana was making a name as a pitcher with the Twins. Kimbrel probably doesn’t know that Santana grew up playing basketball and baseball, idolizing Earvin “Magic” Johnson, before his father recommended he focus on baseball because it gave him a better chance for a professional career.
But Kimbrel does have an old Braves bullpen mate who can vouch for Santana. Former Braves reliever Cristhian Martinez grew up in the Dominican Republic with Santana. They have been close friends and teammates since they were 8 years old.
Santana said he’s in daily contact with Martinez, who was excited when his friend signed with the Braves.
“(He said) I’m going to like it, and the first number I have to have is the traveling secretary,” said Santana, who sounded like a veteran, knowing Bill Acree is a good contact to have. “He said I’m going to have a lot of fun with these guys.”