"I had too much free time and was getting fat. I felt like I gained 20 pounds," Santiago said during a phone conversation from Puerto Rico with MLB.com. "I decided that I'm going to winter ball."
Santiago, who turns 25 in December, now is part of Gigantes de Carolina in the Liga de Beisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, making the trip with his fiancée as well as his brother, Anthony, who is a Minor League hurler in the White Sox system and will be pitching for the Gigantes. But this journey certainly stands as more than a way for the southpaw to avoid idle hands and a few extra calories.
The solid rookie 2012 campaign for Santiago, during which he began as a closer, moved to middle relief, briefly went to Triple-A Charlotte to stretch out as a starter and then excelled as a starter at the big league level, literally was just the beginning for this talented hurler. The White Sox plan on preparing Santiago as a starter for the 2013 campaign and have told him to be ready in said role, so he's going to add anywhere from 40 to 60 innings in Puerto Rico, supplementing his total of 85 from last year.
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper approved of Santiago's decision and told him to check in after every second start just to discuss his approach. The winter results are not as important as the process to Santiago, who has a specific focus of finding greater consistency with his offspeed stuff, much as his plan was last November in Puerto Rico.
"I'm going to try to throw at least one slider and one screwball in every at-bat," Santiago said. "The way I look at it is I'm still not guaranteed a roster spot, and it doesn't matter I was [in the Majors] 98 percent of last year.
"Even if they tell me, 'You are the No. 3 starter,' I still look at it as nothing is guaranteed. I still have to perform and put up numbers."
Four of Santiago's final six 2012 appearances came as a starter, during which he allowed five earned runs on 12 hits over 19 1/3 innings, striking out 26 and walking 11. His screwball, the unique pitch used by Santiago that helps him neutralize right-handed hitters, never felt as good as it did during August and September, but nothing matched Santiago's finale on Oct. 1 at Progressive Field.
In seven innings and 108 pitches against the Indians, Santiago yielded a Michael Brantley walk in the second, Shin-Soo Choo's single in the third and nothing more. He struck out 10 in lowering his ERA to 3.33 as part of a performance that left him wanting his inaugural season to go another 100 games instead of just the remaining two on the schedule.
"Everything was so good," said Santiago of that Cleveland start. "Anything called or put down, I was able to get it over the plate for a strike."
Bringing Jake Peavy back on a two-year, $29 million deal and picking up Gavin Floyd's $9.5 million option left the White Sox with no fewer than six quality starters before last weekend's organizational meetings started. That abundance of starters could mean a veteran such as Floyd eventually is moved to help solidify an uncertain third-base slot, but the White Sox also could part with a younger, less-experienced starter such as Santiago as part of a package to accomplish the same goal.
Trades are not something that concern Santiago presently. He is happy to see the return of consummate teammates such as Floyd, whom he calls "one of the nicest guys I've met in my career" and Peavy, whom he considers as the team's motivator.
Continuing to build up Santiago as a starter simply increases the club's overall options. And by building off of last year's positive season-long experience, Santiago can work on his offspeed consistency in Puerto Rico as a starter who understands how those pitches fit into his overall success.
"Last year, I just worked on all offspeed stuff and got beat up a little bit," said Santiago of his last winter-ball experience. "So, I'm still going to attack the zone with my fastball like always, trying to get ahead of hitters. But whether I get ahead or fall behind, I'm going to try to mix in things.
"Like I said, I'm working right now to get a job. Hopefully, I'll start, but any way I can help the team, whether it's as the long guy, short guy, setup, left-handed specialist for one hitter or as the closer, I'll be ready."