On this date, December 16, 1992, the expansion Florida Marlins signed All-Star free agent catcher Benito Santiago to a two-year contract, adding a big name to their piecemeal lineup for their initial season as a franchise.
It isn't often that a top-line player at a premium position such as catcher is available on the market, but that was the case with Santiago after the 1992 season. A native of Puerto Rico, the backstop was signed by the Padres at the age of 17 and made his debut with San Diego four years later at the end of the 1986 season. In his first full year the next season, Santiago burst onto the scene with a slash line of .300/.324/.367 and 18 home runs, even more impressive considering how rare it was for a catcher to be strong with the bat in the years before the Steroid Era. Santiago's performance earned him the NL Rookie of the Year award and a Silver Slugger. While his numbers dipped to a lower level for most of the rest of his career, Santiago became known for his outstanding defensive abilities as well, especially for his showy technique of throwing out would-be base stealers from his knees. He made the All-Star team in four consecutive years from 1989 to 1992, but Santiago and the Padres became locked in disputes over his contract going into the 1991 season, with San Diego offering $11 million over four years, six million less then the catcher wanted. The two parties had to resort to arbitration for both 1991 and 1992, and by the time the team's control ended after the 1992 season, both were ready to move on.
And so Santiago was available as a free agent right in the prime of his career at the age of 27. The new Florida franchise had taken part in the expansion draft in November along with the Rockies and picked catcher Eric Helfand from the Athletics with the 18th overall pick, but the Marlins traded Helfand back to Oakland for shortstop Walt Weiss on the same day. Steve Decker was selected from the Giants in the second round of the expansion draft, but he was merely a bench option, meaning Florida was still in the market for a starting backstop. Santiago had expressed interest in playing somewhere closer to his native Puerto Rico, making the Marlins a good fit. The two parties eventually agreed to a two-year contract.
In his first year with Florida, Santiago produced decent numbers for a catcher, OPSing .671 in a performance in line with that of his 1992 season (but a step down from his two-year run from 1990 to 1991). His defense seemed to take a hit as well, going from zero passed balls in 1992 to a career-high 23 in 1993, but that was likely due mostly to the presence of knuckleballer Charlie Hough in the Marlins' rotation. Santiago's offense went up a tick in 1994, OPSing .746, though he played in just 101 games. With his contract now expired, the Marlins were content to let the catcher go, what with top prospect Charles Johnson ready to take Santiago's place. Santiago went on to play 11 more seasons with seven more teams, including one last All-Star appearance with the Giants at the age of 37 in their 2002 pennant-winning season. On the negative side of things, Santiago was linked to allegations of steroid use in the Mitchell Report. He was also arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana in February of 2012.
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