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Texas stranger no more, Santana is a role player

Julio Santana was supposed to be the next great Dominican outfielder, like Sammy Sosa. Then he was going to be next in the line of superb shortstops to come out of San Pedro de Macoris.

Now he just wants to be Julio Santana.

The latest addition to the Devil Rays staff has been a pitcher only five years. He grew up in San Pedro thinking he would be an outfielder, mixing power, speed and a strong throwing arm. The Rangers signed him just after he turned 16 and decided his skills would be best utilized at shortstop.

Shortly into his third season playing in the Dominican Summer League, a couple of Rangers officials were impressed enough with his arm to try him on the mound.

"I threw 94 miles an hour and I was only 18 years old," Santana said. "They say, "Oh, man.' In '93 I went to rookie ball, I was 19 years old and I threw 98 miles an hour. They said they'd keep me there. I had a pretty good year."

Santana did more than win four games and post a 1.38 ERA for the Rangers' Gulf Coast League team that summer of 1993. He made a move that got him to the majors four years later.

"When I was a kid, I like being an outfielder and (playing) third base," Santana said. "I had a strong arm growing up and people used to say I would end up pitching.

"I didn't like it at first. I had power and I could hit the ball pretty hard. People were expecting me to be Sammy Sosa or something like that. I had the arm, power, everything. They tried me for a year in the outfield, but nada. They said, "You're going to pitch.' It worked out fine."

Santana moved relatively quickly through the Rangers' minor-league system, turned into one of their top pitching prospects and opened last season in the big leagues.

He started 14 games for the Rangers (going 3-5 with a 7.36 ERA) and made 16 relief appearances (going 1-1 with a 5.50 ERA), but the Rangers apparently wanted more.

Committed to winning immediately, Texas didn't have time to wait for Santana to develop further and needed the roster spot for some more experienced pitchers. They designated him for assignment after three appearances this season. Santana, 24, was out of options, so he couldn't be sent to the minors. That's when the Rays claimed him off waivers.

With good pitching so scarce, he's still not sure why a team would give up on a young prospect.

"That's a question; I don't know," Santana said. "What they want is to win a World Series. They pretty much want veterans there. They want to win so bad they don't care what they do.

"They wanted me to develop in the majors and be perfect right away."

Santana said he couldn't be happier with the new opportunity. He looks across the room at Wilson Alvarez _ whom Texas traded away as a young prospect and is now one of the game's top left-handers _ and says he wouldn't mind showing the Rangers they made another mistake.

"I'm going to make it," he said. "I'm going to make them feel like they did something wrong."

The Rays paid $20,000 to claim Santana for the chance to add a young arm to their organization. Manager Larry Rothschild said he'll use Santana in various roles until the Rays get a feel for his ability. The Rays, though, are in the same position as Texas _ they can't send him to the minors without having to expose him to waivers again.

Santana, who said he considers himself a starter, said bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation made it hard to get adjusted last season. But he says he is ready to succeed. "If they keep me here in one role, I think I can do the job here," Santana said.

Santana said the move will be a good one. His wife, Kandora, who is already in the Tampa Bay area, is expecting their first child later this month and it will be easier for relatives to visit from the Dominican Republic. Santana's brother, Ernesto, who pitched six years in the Pirates organization, lives in Bradenton.

"We were looking for something like this," he said. "I feel like a kid with this team _ a new uniform and everything."

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