Well, THAT was quick.
A day after announcing that Kris Medlen’s MRI revealed elbow ligament damage and conceding that Medlen, Beachy, and Minor might all open the season on the Disabled List, Frank Wren managed to sign the best pitcher still available on the market to a one-year, $14.1 million pillow deal.
(David O’Brien notes that this required Liberty Media to approve the team to expand payroll beyond $100 million, which was nice of them.)
Also importantly, the Braves will be giving their first-round draft pick to the Royals. That appears to be the 26th overall pick. Since the Braves are receiving a compensatory pick from Brian McCann’s departure, this means that their draft position won’t change much but they now pick only once before the second round instead of twice.
Ervin Santana was still available for two major reasons: he and his agents drastically misplayed the market, and he has been hugely inconsistent throughout his career. As a result of his struggles to sign this winter, he fired one of his agents, Bean Stringfellow. The biggest problem with Santana and his agents’ strategy was that they announced they were seeking a deal for $112 million and then were slow to pivot when that market simply never materialized. As Buster Olney writes, “The fact is that nobody who takes a paycheck from a team saw Santana as a $100 million-plus pitcher. Nobody.”
But perhaps an even bigger problem with Santana is the back of his baseball card. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2005 at the age of 22, he has posted the following ERAs (I’ve also included FIP-, a normalized measure of FIP where 100 is average and lower numbers are good, to show how his components have gone up and down):
As you can see, the thing about Santana is not so much that his 2013 was excellent — by the components, it was good but not superb — it is that his 2012 was catastrophically bad. One of the biggest issues with Santana is his knack for giving up homers in bunches. In fact, his home run rate is a pretty good predictor of whether his season is going to be good or terrible.
In 2007, 2009, and 2012, when his ERA was over 5.00, he gave up at least 1.5 homers per 9 innings. In 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013, it was 1.1 or less. It’s not clear just how much his park has to do with that. Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium decreases homers, but so does Angel Stadium, and Santana managed to set a career high in homers given up in 2012, the same year that Mike Trout came to prominence for saving home runs.
Unfortunately, though it still yields fewer homers than average, Turner Field does not have quite the same homer-dampening effect as either Angel Stadium or Kauffman Stadium. So Santana will not necessarily get help from home if he wants to cut down on his homers. However, moving to the league without the DH will definitely help. In 2013, AL hitters hit 2504 homers while NL hitters hit 2157. (In all, AL games averaged 4.33 runs a game, while NL games averaged 4.0 runs a game.) He’s moving to a much pitcher-friendlier league.
But the Royals were the top defensive team in baseball last year, and while the Braves were again among the league leaders, they weren’t as good as the Royals. Just for comparison, the Braves as a team had 42 Defensive Runs Saved last year, almost all of that from Andrelton Simmons’s golden glove; the Royals had 95 DRS. That’s a one-year fluke that’s bound to regress, of course, but it helped Santana a whole lot. Having Simmons on his side will almost certainly help, but Simmons can’t pull back homers.
One of Santana’s greatest attributes is his ability to stay healthy. He hasn’t missed a game in the regular season since 2009, which is the only year that he has visited the Disabled List. This is perhaps the greatest hidden talent he possesses, and it’s the biggest reason that the Braves need him now.
It’s easy to suggest that Santana won’t repeat what he did in 2013, because blah blah blah regression to the mean. It is true that Santana has been a legitimately very good pitcher at times. He has been at least a 3-win pitcher in five different seasons: 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013. But he’s been near replacement-level in the other four. His stats grade out to average, but he never actually gives an average performance. He’s more of a dice roll, like Javier Vazquez with a worse K/BB ratio.
Or, if you like, here’s a pitcher A-pitcher B comparison:
Pitcher A is Santana. Pitcher B is A.J. Burnett, who signed with the Phillies for $15 million — about the same money as Santana. Burnett’s been better than Santana in his career, and despite A.J.’s reputation for being up and down, he hasn’t had nearly the volatility of Santana. On the other hand, Burnett is 37 and Santana is 31, which means that Burnett is a lot closer to the end.
However, beyond the money, it’s worth remembering that Burnett’s career collapse came when he moved to the AL East, the toughest division in baseball, and his renaissance came when he moved to the NL Central, one of the easiest. Santana’s collapse came in the AL West, perhaps the second-toughest division in baseball, and his renaissance came in the AL Central, maybe the single easiest, and now he’s moving to a league without a DH and a team with Andrelton Simmons. It’s fine to be a front-runner if there are enough weaklings to beat up on, and if he can make a third of his starts against the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins, three teams without much of an offense, then he has a chance of doing just that.
Santana is a band-aid, not a bionic arm. But he is exactly, precisely the band-aid that this team needs, particularly while they wait for Gavin Floyd (who likely will be league-average). This isn’t the rotation that we hoped it would be, but Wren just bought us 200 innings and 33 starts. Nothing could be more important.