The role difference was huge, but the common ground covered too much territory for them to part ways. And after both sides did some exploring, they came back together for a two-year contract, as the Tigers announced Wednesday.
Santiago will make just over $4 million on the contract. He made $1.35 million this past season, the back half of a two-year contract he signed that pushed back free agency for a year until this winter.
Whether Santiago comes back to the same role he had for most of this year, sharing second base with Ryan Raburn, depends on what else the Tigers do this winter. And a bevy of club officials cautioned that they could still change up their infield with a move. At the same time, however, they wouldn't have re-signed Santiago to simply play a marginal role as a backup.
"Santiago and Ryan Raburn will be playing second base as the club stands today," manager Jim Leyland said by phone Wednesday. "He will probably [also] get time at short [backing up Jhonny Peralta]."
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's answer was much the same.
"We are set to open with Santiago and Raburn," Dombrowski answered in an e-mail. "However, we will see what happens."
Or as Leyland characterized the Tigers' dealings, "We're just picking away at a couple things."
Both Santiago and the Tigers have been watching the market for a while. In the end, they both decided this was the best fit.
Santiago said during the postseason that he wanted to remain a Tiger, but his desire to find a regular job was strong. As a free agent for the first time at age 32, having spent the last six seasons in Detroit, this was his chance to try to find that role. If it was going to happen, this was the time.
Santiago switched agents just before the start of free agency. The Pirates were rumored to have interest in signing Santiago to play shortstop, but instead signed Clint Barmes last week.
The Tigers, meanwhile, were looking at their infield picture with increasing concern. They had interest in Jamey Carroll, though not necessarily as an everyday player, then watched the Twins sign him to a two-year, $6.75 million deal to serve as Minnesota's starting shortstop.
Detroit always kept its interest in keeping Santiago, but wasn't sure it was going to happen.
"We expressed interest all along," Leyland said. "But when a guy has a chance to be a free agent, you can't blame him for that."
The Tigers have maintained the view that Santiago would physically wear down in an everyday role. A semi-regular or a utility role, they've believed, gets the best out of him. As a switch-hitter with a strong arm, good range and sure hands at both second base and shortstop, he was a key piece.
The numbers, though limited, bear it out. Santiago has played in 364 games over the last four seasons since sticking with the Major League club. He has hit .266 (256-for-964) in that span with 32 doubles, nine home runs and 105 RBIs. His .710 OPS in that stretch ranks just 20 points below that of Angels infielder Maicer Izturis in the same stretch, four points below Angels infielder Erick Aybar, five points better than Carroll and 55 points better than Willie Bloomquist.
Bloomquist signed a two-year, $3.8 million contract with the D-backs earlier this month. Izturis, who was linked to the Tigers in trade rumors earlier this week, is under contract this season for $3.8 million.
Those salaries, and those of other infielders who signed deals this winter, raised concerns that Santiago might get a better deal elsewhere.
"We wanted him back," Leyland said of Santiago. "He's one of our key players, to be honest. He's one of our players that everybody likes."
Normally, Leyland downplays the importance of clubhouse chemistry. For Leyland to praise Santiago for his presence and leadership is quite a feat.
Leyland usually stays away from contacting free agents unless it's part of a heavy recruiting effort or a deal is close. He called Santiago twice, including on Wednesday before the deal was finalized.
"I wanted to make sure he knew that we wanted him back," Leyland said. "He's done a heckuva job for us. I think he's one of the best utility infielders in baseball for what he does, playing second base and shortstop."