In Their Footsteps: The left fielder

Aside from the fact that both come from a town with a population that couldn’t fill a Class AA ballpark, there’s almost nothing that Thurman Clyde “Rusty” Greer III and Cristian Santana have in common.  But the 19-year-old from Loma de Cabrera, Dominican Republic may be the Rangers’ top candidate in the farm system to make an impact in left field one day that approaches the one that the 39-year-old from Fort Rucker, Alabama made in his nine-year Rangers career.

When the Rangers signed Santana in July 2005, they prevailed over a group of teams that included the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Braves, and Cubs, some of whom envisioned the 16-year-old as a center fielder with plus power and a right fielder’s arm.  Texas saw Santana as a catcher, however, signing him for a reported $325,000 at a time when the catching depth in the system was below average.  That summer’s third-round pick, Taylor Teagarden, was still three weeks away from signing.  Eighteen-year-old defensive whiz Manny Pina had made his pro debut just two weeks earlier.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Max Ramirez were Class A players in the Atlanta system at the time.

Santana was supposed to burst onto the scene in 2006, but a torn muscle in his shoulder led to season-ending surgery before he was able to make his debut.  Assigned to the Arizona League in 2007, he homered in his first two pro games but then broke a thumb in his fourth game, causing him to miss a month.  Once he returned to action, he had 13 passed balls in 28 games behind the plate and caught just seven of 51 baserunners attempting to steal.  The injuries and the defensive issues and the dramatic influx of catching prospects in the system prompted Texas to move Santana to the outfield in 2008.  Ever since the day he signed, the consensus was that he had the type of potential with the bat that would play at any position.

Greer, on the other hand, arrived in pro ball with no fanfare whatsoever.  A 10th-round pick in 1990 out of the University of Montevallo – a school that had never produced a big league player before Greer and hasn’t since – Greer was anonymous on Draft Day but made a name for himself right away, hitting .345 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 62 games for the rookie-level Butte Copper Kings.  In 1991, his first full pro season, he was challenged with an assignment to High A Charlotte.  He responded by earning a late-season promotion to AA Tulsa.  

The Rangers made a position switch with Greer in 1992, shifting him to first base on a Drillers club that had David Hulse, Donald Harris, and Kevin Belcher in the outfield.  He manned first for Tulsa again in 1993, and was promoted to AAA Oklahoma City once the AA season ended.  Texas returned Greer to Oklahoma City in 1994 – though he was put back in the outfield since he was on the doorstep to the big leagues – and seven weeks into the season he got the call to Arlington.  Greer would go on to hit .314 for Texas in 1994, the highest average of any rookie in the major leagues.

But the quintessential moment of Greer’s rookie season was the diving catch he made in center field to rob Rex Hudler of a ninth-inning hit and preserve Kenny Rogers’s perfect game on July 28.  Greer would also squeeze the final out that night, and a love affair between the highlight shows and Rusty Greer the defender was born.  While his reckless style gave Rangers fans diving grabs and catches that the outfield wall couldn’t prevent, it also took a severe toll on Greer’s body.  He would have surgery on his right ankle, his back, his neck, his throwing shoulder, and his elbow before his playing days ended, and he opted against right knee and right hip operations that he probably needed.  Greer’s career ended too quickly, at age 33.

Though injuries limited Greer to just 1,027 games (most of which were played in left field) in his nine big league seasons, he was one of those rare players who unquestionably got everything out of his ability, and then some.  A career .287/.385/.435 hitter in the minor leagues, Greer was a .305/.387/.478 hitter in the big leagues.  He sits in the top 10 of every meaningful offensive category in franchise history, and was a slam dunk inductee into the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2007.  

Greer’s induction ceremony took place on August 11.  On that same day, Santana kicked off an Arizona League stretch in which he hit safely in 12 of 13 games and prompted a promotion to Spokane to end the season.  Between the two stops, Santana hit a robust .306/.413/.529 in 2007, and even though he amassed only 96 AZL at-bats (and 121 at-bats overall), league managers and scouts voted him as the circuit’s top catching prospect and number nine prospect overall.  

Still dealing with shoulder issues, however, Santana played very little defense during Fall Instructional League after the 2007 season, and the Rangers decided in spring training to move him to the outfield for the 2008 season.  Playing left field for Low A Clinton (plus a good amount of DH), Santana was hitting .429/.529/.643 eight games into the season but has slumped since, falling to .221/.305/.398 before an ankle injury sidelined him in late May.  He just returned to action over the weekend.  

There is no question about Santana’s offensive potential.  Rangers minor league hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger said before the season that he expects Santana (who turned 19 yesterday) to eventually hit for more power than Frisco catcher Max Ramirez – who currently leads the Texas League in home runs.

If that happens, Santana will develop into a player quite a bit different from Greer, whose game was built on tenacity more than tools, on being a tough out more than a feared slugger.  

It will suit Texas just fine if Santana turns into a left fielder that doesn’t necessarily bring the same things to the table that Greer did, just as long as his early tendency to have various injuries keep him off the field doesn’t end up resembling the physical breakdown that cut short Greer’s remarkable Rangers career.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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