Playing baseball has been a part of the life of Wilbis Santiago since he was six years old.
“My uncle gave me a glove and a bat, and I really liked baseball,” said Santiago in a midseason interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night.
Hailing from Cotui in the Dominican Republic, the 6’0″, 180 lb. left-handed hitter signed at 19 years old, beginning his career with three seasons for the Indians Dominican League team, a Rookie-level club. In 313 at-bats over those years he maintained a batting average of .300, primarily playing second base.
Current Hillcats bench coach Mike Mergenthaler was a coach for Cleveland in the Dominican during that time, getting to see Santiago at the beginning of his career.
“It’s really cool to see his progress,” said Mergenthaler. “He’s a really talented guy, really good bat-to-ball skills. He’s learning what it takes to be a professional, to be consistent day-in and day-out.”
In 2017, he got off to a hot start in the Dominican, hitting .333, before heading stateside to play in the short-season Arizona League. He spent the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018 at that level, getting in 72 games and continuing to demonstrate his hitting proficiency, posting a .304 batting average in 260 at-bats.
Santiago comes from a family of five siblings – two brothers and two sisters, all of them younger. Baseball has always been the sport he focused on, following the career of Robinson Cano, a fellow Dominican second baseman.
“When I turned 15, I realized I had the ability to have success in baseball,” said Santiago. “That’s when I really started working hard.”
This season has been a whirlwind for Santiago. He was assigned to Low-A Lake County on April 20, and three days later received a promotion to High-A Lynchburg. After four seasons at the Rookie-level, he had rapidly jumped several levels to a higher degree of competition.
“I feel really good that they have moved me up so quickly,” said Santiago about his rapid promotion. “This is an opportunity that I am really going to take advantage of, especially the fact that they moved me up two levels.”
Hillcats manager Jim Pankovits agrees with Santiago’s assessment of his opportunity this season.
“He’s made the most that you can imagine out of the opportunity that he’s had,” said Pankovits. “He’s gotten better every day, but he still needs to work on his plate discipline. He still has a lot to learn, but I think at this point he is right on schedule.”
A perfect example of this improvement was a game in late May where the Hillcats faced off against the Fayetteville Woodpeckers. Batting in the second spot in the lineup, with the Hillcats already down a run in the first inning, Santiago tripled into the right field corner and would score on a single by Oscar Gonzalez, keeping the Hillcats even with their opponents.
He would later single in an inning when the Hillcats scored three runs to take the lead, but it would be his final at-bat that demonstrated his improving skill and plate discipline.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the scored tied at four, Santiago came to bat with Gabriel Mejia on first and none out.
“I wanted to move Gabby [Mejia] to second, but when I saw the pitcher wasn’t throwing in the zone I thought, ‘I’ll just take the walk and let the next guy do it’,” said Santiago.
Not only is Santiago working on improving his hitting, he is diligent about learning the art of defensive play at second base. It helps that his manager, Pankovits, also played a good deal at second base during his Major League career.
“I need to get better on the double play,” said Santiago. “I struggle with that. Working hard in practice every day helps me.”
After a hot start with Lynchburg, Santiago fell into a slump and was briefly assigned back to Lake County where he was placed on the Injured List. He returned to the Hillcats on July 4 and, after a pair of hitless games, rattled off a 20-game hitting streak to boost his season batting average from .260 to .312. His streak ended on August 2 and he ultimately landed on the 7-day injured list on August 13 with a right heel contusion that has kept him off of the field since. He had slashed .310/.340/.418 in 67 total games for the Hillcats this season.
A right-hander on defense, his repertoire is expanding as he has alternated play between second and third base since his return to Lynchburg. He has previous experience around the infield from his seasons in the Dominican, even playing a few games in the outfield.
When asked what else he enjoys doing, he had difficulty coming up with an answer. Since signing with the Indians baseball has been the singular focus of his life.
Finally, he talked about computer designs, like graphic arts.
“My uncle taught me when I would go to work with him,” said Santiago. “Like Coca Cola logos and stuff like that.”
Though he has skills in graphic design, right now baseball remains his passion. His season may have been cut short by injury, but Santiago has done well to focus all of his efforts into continuing to develop his game and take advantage of the next opportunity to come his way.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats (MiLB.com)