As the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays continue their tepid-to-hot pursuit of free agent righty Ervin Santana, many are scratching their heads. How could free agency go so horribly wrong for a pitcher who logged 211 innings and posted a 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP last year? Particularly in an off-season where Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez each received four year deals north of $12 million annually?
The first inclination is to look at the draft pick issue. Since Santana rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer to stay in Kansas City, a team would have to give up their top pick to sign him. The same issue has doomed the employment prospects of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. But they don’t possess the potential of the former All-Star and author of a no-hitter.
Which gets down to the other issue: potential return vs. actual value. Santana has laid some of the biggest eggs of any American League starting pitcher since he came into the league. In his 2007, 2009 and 2012 seasons, he combined for 467 2/3 innings and posted a 5.31 ERA, which is truly horrific.
What’s the issue from year to year? His offseason regimen? His mechanics being out of whack? His health? The Angels finally had enough and shipped him to the Royals for bullpen depth in October 2012. If he could have hitched a ride on one of the 39 gopher balls he permitted that year, it might have been just as efficient.
Put on your GM hat for a second. Would you give a long-term deal to a 31-year old who can’t string together two good seasons in a row?
It’s probably silly for the Brewers to follow up a 74-win campaign by lavishing money on Garza, but at least he’s consistently above average. And Dan Duquette simply played the cards he was dealt in Baltimore by signing Jimenez, getting “ace” upside at a fraction of the overall value of what the Yankees payed for wild card Masahiro Tanaka.
There are signs Santana is finally beginning to harness his ability. He started throwing a sinker last year, inducing more ground ball outs. He also lowered his walk rate to 2.2 BB/9, his best ratio since 2008 when he finished sixth in the American League Cy Young voting. Adjustments like these make him more attractive over the long term. But that was one self-imposed contract year in Kansas City; long term, we have nothing to go on.
Santana to the Blue Jays makes the most sense. Toronto desperately needs pitching to hang in the AL East. Their first round picks are also protected, so they’d only have to relinquish number 50. And finally, there’s the perception that whiffing on Santana closes the lid on a failed offseason. Sure, but they also spent four months standing pat on free agents outside of the “portly, defensive-minded catcher” category. Santana is a name to slot in next to R.A. Dickey and the ever-waiting-for-a-piano-to-fall-on-him Brandon Morrow if they decide to keep Marcus Stroman down in AAA, but he wouldn’t push the Jays over the top.
Jimenez-Santana-Tillman is enticing for Baltimore fans. At their best, they’re a force to be reckoned with. But the Orioles would also employ two of the biggest Jekyll and Hyde acts in all of baseball at the top of their rotation. Jimenez looks great in Spring Training, but what happens in August when he can’t find the strike zone and Santana allows a Brad Radke-like conga line to form as his offerings are swatted onto Eutaw Street?
Some may think I’m a hater or a jilted former fantasy owner. I may be the former. I’m certainly not the latter. I know better than to draft Ervin Santana to my fantasy team. GMs throughout baseball knew better than to sign him to their real teams. As Alex Anthopoulos and Dan Duquette await a decision, the reality is that decision may not make much of a difference in a division with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.