Around the start of the offseason, there was talk that Nelson Cruz was after a $75-million contract. He eventually settled for $8 million. At the same time, there was talk that Ervin Santana was after a $100-million contract. He’s now settled for $14.1 million. Put those numbers together and you have $175 million requested and $22.1 million received. That difference of $153 million is the amount for which the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury. So, that’s some perspective.
Santana reached a one-year agreement with the Braves Tuesday, and it became official early Wednesday. Over the weekend, all the talk was about how Santana would be choosing between the Orioles and the Blue Jays, but then the Braves developed a desperate need, with Kris Medlen preparing for probable Tommy John surgery. In need of a starting pitcher, the Braves signed pretty much the only available free-agent starting pitcher, and so Santana will pitch in the National League for the first time in his career. Probably, that’s a big reason why he made the decision he did.
Lately it became clear to Santana and his representation that he wasn’t going to get anywhere near the kind of contract he wanted. While he eventually lowered his demands to something like the four-year pitcher contracts we saw, things took too long to get to that point, and Santana was left as the odd man out. One of the “advantages” of remaining available into spring training is that injuries can create a sudden need, as has happened here, but Santana still wound up with a one-year commitment. The goal now is to try to build value to re-enter free agency in the fall. Also to win, but Santana wants to prove to the market that he can be both healthy and effective and that his 2013 wasn’t a fluke.
For those reasons, Atlanta’s a sensible fit. Atlanta, Baltimore, and Toronto were all offering similar amounts for one year. Right now, Atlanta has by far the highest playoff odds of the group. The Braves are looking at baseball’s second-weakest projected schedule, while the Orioles and Jays are looking at two of the three toughest. And the Braves play in a more pitcher-friendly park in the NL, which could and should be of assistance with regard to Santana’s demonstrated dinger habit.
One way of looking at this: Baltimore plays with a homer factor of 110. Toronto plays with a homer factor of 107. Atlanta plays with a homer factor of 97. Another way of looking at this: over the past five years, Orioles starters have allowed 30 homers per 200 innings. Jays starters have allowed 27. Braves starters have allowed 19. What the Braves didn’t offer Santana was the promise of more money right away. But they did offer the softest landing, which increases Santana’s longer-term earning potential. Even though everyone’s aware of park adjustments, Santana could look a lot better coming off a year in Atlanta than a year in the AL East.
Interestingly, Santana expressed that he wanted to sign soon, so he could get in camp. Had he waited to sign until after opening day, he wouldn’t have been eligible for a qualifying offer after the year. As is, he could end up right back in the same boat, in the event that he pitches well. But then, that would guarantee at least $15-16 million, and as Ubaldo Jimenez demonstrated, a decent starter can still get a good contract despite a qualifying offer provided his expectations are reasonable. In Santana’s mind, seven months from now he’ll be coming off his second consecutive strong season, which would make him more trustworthy. There’s also the chance Atlanta wouldn’t extend a qualifying offer even if Santana pitched well, due to budgetary limitations. Santana ended up with a modest deal, but there’s still some upside here for the player. There’s just more for the team than there usually is.
I got it in my head yesterday that the Braves would poke around for alternatives, rather than give up a first-round draft pick. Zach Britton, for one example, is out of options and maybe without a starting job. In retrospect, I was overthinking it. Santana was available for one year. The Braves had a definite need. The Braves are in a competitive position. And, a year from now, the Braves might well get a pick back if Santana signs somewhere else. They’ll lose, for certain, a late first-rounder, but there’s the potential for a future compensation pick, and a late first-rounder is also only a little more valuable than an early second-rounder. The obvious course was the obvious course: the Braves settled on the one guy they could get for money.
What Santana isn’t is Kris Medlen. Steamer likes Santana a little bit more, but ZiPS prefers Medlen and the Fans prefer Medlen, and Medlen’s coming off a couple years of really good pitching. But Santana’s close to that good, so if you figure Medlen is done for the season, it’s as simple as a one-for-one swap. Then the Braves are just a little bit worse than they were a week ago. And had they not done this, they would’ve dropped further in the projected standings, further away from the Nationals and closer to the heart of the Wild Card competition. Where the Braves are on the win curve, it was vital for them to replace Medlen with someone at least close to as talented.
On our playoff odds page, the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals lead the way in the NL, as projected division champs. In fourth are the Braves, pre-Santana, a little ahead of the Giants and Pirates. Behind them are the Diamondbacks. Without Santana, and without Medlen, the Braves would’ve dropped into the pack. With Santana, they ought to maintain an edge, to say nothing of keeping within reach of the Nationals. Santana’s the equivalent of several percentage points of playoff probability, and though it’s less exciting for the Braves to more or less just restore what their odds were, think of this as a trip to the dentist to repair a cavity. When you’re healthy, you don’t have cavities. When you have a cavity, you can try to live with it, but it can get real bad. Getting a filling costs money, and it just makes you back into what you used to be, but you can’t focus on the zero displacement. You have to keep in mind the alternative, and the alternative is more money in your pocket and a really bad toothache.
Santana wasn’t the only way the Braves could’ve gone. But he might’ve been the best pitcher they could get without giving up prospect resources, and they’re in a position where they can win this very year. So it makes sense for them to have given Santana the equivalent of the qualifying offer, and it makes sense for Santana to go to Atlanta instead of his other options, given what those options were. If Santana pitches poorly this season, nobody wins. If Santana gets hurt this season, nobody wins. That’s why players like to go after longer-term security. But if Santana can just pitch like himself, then everyone’s a winner, and who’s more likely to pitch like Ervin Santana than Ervin Santana?
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