Royals Bet on Ervin Santana, Inflation

The Angels had until today to decide whether to exercise Ervin Santana‘s $13 million option or pay him a $1 million buyout and make him a free agent. After a miserable 2012 season, it was pretty obvious that they weren’t interested in picking up the option, so today, they shipped him to Kansas City.

The deal, as reported by Ken Rosenthal, is Santana and cash for LHP Brandon Sisk. Given that the Angels could have made Santana go away for $1 million and that Sisk is a 27-year-old reliever who has never pitched in the Majors, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Angels aren’t kicking in much more than that $1 million they would have owed either way. The Royals are almost certainly going to have to pay $11-$12 million of Santana’s salary in 2013.

So, is he worth that kind of cash? Well, maybe.

Santana was awful last year, ranking as somewhere between one win below replacement level (by FIP) and exactly replacement level (by RA), depending on how you want to evaluate a pitcher’s results. The problem, as is usually the problem when he’s going badly, was home runs. He gave up 39 dingers in 30 starts, despite pitching in a park that suppresses home runs, especially for right-handed pitchers. His 1.97 HR/9 was the worst in the majors among qualified pitchers, 20% worse than the next highest HR/9 any starter allowed (Phil Hughes, 1.65).

Beyond the homers, though, it was pretty much business as usual. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and ground ball rate were all right around career norms for him, so even though his velocity was down and the results were horrific, he doesn’t seem to have cratered as a pitcher. He just threw too many meatballs and hitters didn’t miss them very often. It happens, but it’s not necessarily the most predictive thing in the world. In fact, if you want to buy low on a starting pitcher, finding a guy with a high HR/FB rate in the previous year isn’t a bad place to start, and no one posted a higher HR/FB rate than Santana last year.

So, I’d say there’s a pretty decent chance Santana bounces back in 2013. This probably isn’t a Jonathan Sanchez situation. There’s not a lot of evidence that Santana is just broken, like Sanchez appears to be.

However, there’s also not a lot of evidence that Santana has the capability of being a difference maker, even when he’s not giving up home runs left and right. For his career, he’s posted a 103 ERA-/106 FIP-/101 xFIP-, making him something pretty close to a league average starting pitcher. He was better than that in 2011, but it was mostly a low BABIP/high LOB combo, and it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that it didn’t stick. Given his status as a fly ball pitcher who doesn’t miss a ton of bats and still has some command issues, it’s hard to project him as more than a durable innings eater. And that’s if his home run problem from 2012 wasn’t the sign of a more serious problem.

Durable innings eaters have their usefulness, but $12ish million for that skillset seems steep, especially given how many teams were able to find useful starters for a fraction of that in last year’s free agent class. However, as has been noted many times over, the new television contracts that the league and teams have negotiated are pushing a lot of new money into the league, and it’s possible that we’re in for some pretty gnarly inflation this offseason. If the prices of players are going up significantly, $12 million for a potential league average pitcher on a one year deal might not look so crazy when all is said and done.

And, of course, the Royals have had their problems luring free agents to Kansas City to begin with, so by trading for Santana, they don’t have to worry about the whole “I want to play for a winner” stigma, and there is some value associated with having a bird in the hand. Given their desire to add multiple pitchers to their rotation this winter, this hedge against runaway inflation has some chance to pay off, especially if Santana rebounds and the Royals can make him a qualifying offer next winter, gathering a compensation pick for a one year rental that didn’t cost them any real talent in the first place.

But, of course, we don’t know that Santana is going to bounce back. We don’t know that there’s going to be runaway inflation. We don’t know that the Royals will be able to make Santana a qualifying offer next winter without him accepting it. There are scenarios in which the stars align and this move looks okay 12 months from now, but there’s also a lot of scenarios where the Royals regret spending 15% of their payroll on a pitcher with some glaring flaws. When you’re a middle-to-small market franchise without the financial resources of your own RSN or a huge cable deal, you have to make sure you get some legitimate return on the dollars you invest.

The Royals are now on the hook for about $20 million in 2013 to Ervin Santana and Jeff Francoeur. Optimistically, you might think those two can give you +3 wins, maybe +4. The Royals total payroll in 2012 was $64 million. You just can’t spend 1/3 of your payroll on less than five wins and compete unless your payroll is enormous. And even if it is enormous, there are almost certainly better ways to spend $20 million.

Maybe this works. Maybe Santana has a good year, and he gives them 200 decent innings, and they get a compensation pick in the 2014 draft. More likely, though, they just spent $12 million on a pitcher who will give them what they could have gotten for $5 million, and like with most of Dayton Moore’s Major League moves, it turns out to be too much money for not enough production.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

43 Responses to “Royals Bet on Ervin Santana, Inflation”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Yeah, they needed a guy like this, but that’s just too much money.

    However, Moore’s payroll leash might be much bigger than we think. They’ve been saying they’ll spend when the time is right for a while, so they might have been banking money for a rainy day for some time now.

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  2. Bob says:

    I think they looked at the pitching alternatives, decided they weren’t going to be players for guys like Greinke, Lohse, Dempster, Jackson, Sanchez and said, “let’s take a risk for one year and let Duffy/Montgomery/Odorizo (sp?) develop.”

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  3. Adam says:

    “We don’t know that there’s going to be runaway inflation.”

    Every team is given $28M and you don’t expect teams to use it? If you don’t like Ervin Santana, that’s one thing… make that why you don’t like the trade. To imply teams aren’t going to use contract money to increase their opportunity at “the key piece” they believe they’re missing just seems shortsighted.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      You don’t see a big gray area between “runaway inflation” and “don’t use it at all”?

      To justify this kind of salary, you probably have to think the cost of a win is going to be $8 million or something this winter. That’s like a 25-30% jump in one off-season. That’s… unlikely.

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      • jim fetterolf says:

        Dave, for the Royals the $28 mil represents nearly doubling what they would have had available. 25-30% seems in the ballpark, as it only takes one team to jack up the going rates. Zack at 6/200 is possible with the coming money and Guthrie at 3/45 is in the ballpark. Elementary supply and demand. Teams that don’t put that money into players will be vilified by the usual suspects for putting profits over a winning team.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        If you think Zack Greinke is getting 6/200 or Jeremy Guthrie is getting 3/45… let’s just say I’ll make a really huge wager on the under on every contract expectation you have.

        Also, that money doesn’t kick in until 2014. For 2013 — the only year Santana is under contract for — the national TV revenue is unchanged.

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      • Tim says:

        Can anyone reasonably expect the Royals to have the opportunity to spend free agent money at or near the average $/win, though? I think the KC-specific number is probably already $7-8m.

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  4. JS7 says:

    Good move by the Angels to free up some money for Greinke and get something for Santana.

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  5. vivalajeter says:

    “they just spend $12 million on a pitcher who will give them what they could have gotten for $5 million”

    I’m not sure they could have gotten that production for $5MM. Santana was terrible last year – there’s no way around that. But he averaged 2.5 wins from 2010-2011, and he averaged 3 wins from 2008-2011. Few people would be surprised if he had a 2.5-3.5 win season next year. If they think last year was a fluke due to the HR rate, then they can justifiably project about that many wins for him.

    If there are free agent pitchers with that upside, I doubt they’d go to KC for $5MM.

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    • jcxy says:

      I saw that line too but took a different view. How is the WAR/$ graph for PA pitchers distributed last offseason? Was it normal or was it closer to bimodal?? In other words, the expected return for 5 MM in a FA pitcher can be calculated, say, x WAR/5MM based on comps from previous offseasons. But in practice, won’t most teams expect to field either 0 or 2x WAR from that 5 MM investment (which gives us an average of x)??

      I can definitely see the merits of not paying for “safe” production from someone like Santana. However, I disagree that Santana doesn’t have reasonable upside to justify the salary.

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  6. Rippers says:

    On paper this trade looks tearable for KC.

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  7. PepeShady says:

    I’m gonna name my new band “pretty gnarly inflation.”

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  8. TK says:

    So did KC automatically pick up the option? Or do they still have a window to negotiate this to something like 2/18? Not even sure that would be a better option, just curious.

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  9. benjh5 says:

    Solid analysis. It’s these types of moves that can take a mediocre team in a mediocre division, and increase their chances to compete for a full season. The Royals can’t afford flashy moves, and if they are going to take a chance on someone, might as well buy low.

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    • Jason B says:

      …except it appears that they aren’t really buying low at all, they’re paying full freight. And then some.

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      • benjh5 says:

        They may be paying the money, but for a team like Kansas City that has trouble luring free agents with talent, and the stats showing that Santana’s bad year had almost everything to do with his increased home run rate, the Royals probably couldn’t have done better on the free agent market. If Santana doesn’t work out in 2013 they only have him for the one season, and don’t have to deal with a dead weight contract. To only look at production vs. cost here is the wrong way to approach such a trade. The team gave up very little in return. Santana may just need a change of venue, a smaller town, where he can recoup and begin to make adjustments to have a better 2013 than 2012.

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  10. jim fetterolf says:

    On inflation, more money chasing the same amount of product increases the price of the product. I think contracts this winter will be ridiculous as multi-year contracts will factor in the new TV money. Albert Pujols will look cheap in a couple of years.

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  11. Adrianite says:

    Kauffman Stadium suppresses home runs even more than Angels Stadium.

    I would have preferred a deal for Dan Haren, but KC may be on his no-trade list. The Royals need 2-3 new starters, preferably on short-term deals, so in that mindset, I think this is a good move. They also have payroll flexibility after declining Joakim Soria’s $8m option today.

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  12. bookbook says:

    Here’s a dumb question: How does the de facto ceiling adjust? Is the $187 million to avoid the penalty a hard number, or does it adjust to the league average salary in some way? This could make a big difference on the run-away inflation front. No one wants to pay 40% of payroll directly into the pockets of their competition.

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  13. Alex says:

    I understand what the article is getting at, but I don’t think the Royals will be too disappointed if they overpay him $2 or $3 million… If he has a $10 million dollar season (2 wins, no?) they’ll be happy.

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  14. jim fetterolf says:

    Dave Cameron, 8:05pm, when the money kicks in doesn’t matter, that it does in ’14 means that any contracts longer than one year will reflect it. $28 mil is a lot of money and no assurance that a Greinke or Anibal Sanchez is available in ’14. It impacts the going rate this year, as I doubt any FA pitchers better than Santana will sign for $13 mil on a one-year contract with the Royals.

    What’s your prediction for Zack and Guthrie, just so we can look back and compare?

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    • Kinsm says:

      If Guthrie gets more than 2 years and 8 mil per it’s an overpay. Greinke is not getting 33 mil a year!

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      • Paul says:

        Right, and the most important point is this ridiculous line about a one year deal. How many more years are the Royals going to try and fix their biggest problems on the cheap? To just get to .500 this team needs at least one $15m+ pitcher on a multi-year deal.

        Jim has been willing to accept mediocrity while touting the farm for a while now, and good for him. Seven years is enough. This year the Royals had three youngish starters log significant innings, all of them mediocre btw. Two were traded for (this does not include Odorizzi, who was also acquired in a trade), and the third, drafted in Dayton’s first season, logged a season that now puts him in historically bad territory for his career, right behind Kyle Davies. For the love of Pete, what more evidence do you need that a change in approach is in order?

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  15. walt526 says:

    There’s higher marginal value of having a meh starting pitching like Santana under contract for just a single year at $13M (or whatever portion they pay of it) as compared to likely having to give a multiyear contract to a comparably mediocre pitcher on the free agent market, even if it’s less than $13M per annum.

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  16. Paul says:

    I hate the deal, but not because they overpaid for a meh pitcher. It’s 12 mil of 20 mil they could be paying a legit starter, even if it’s not Greinke or Sanchez. Santana does not appreciably improve the team, even if he turns in a 2011 season. The Royals have a ton of these guys, which is why they are bad. They have no need for more suck.

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    • Karyn says:

      Not sure about that. Their rotation is so bad, E. Santana is definitely an upgrade. Now, if only they can lose Hochevar . . .

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      • Kinsm says:

        So they’ve spent 12 mil (a large chunk of what they have to spend) and if lucky go from a 72 win team to a 76 win team. You are right that he is an upgrade, but at that expense it’s highly unlikely it was a worthwhile move.

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      • Paul says:

        What Kinsm said. But even a 4 win upgrade for the team from this deal (not a WAR calculation) is extremely generous.

        Santana was one of a handful of potential breakouts I called before 2011 based on some metrics that aggregate stats including FIP did not account for. But that was entirely contingent upon him simply executing his pitches on a more consistent basis. FIP, xFIP, and SIERA have never liked him, the latter two being very predictive.

        The point is that he is essentially Luke Hochever (but will be paid more than twice what Luke will make in arb), a guy with good stuff who should pitch a lot better than he does. The roller coaster ride of two Hochevars in the rotation this season will finally put Royal die-hards over the edge.

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  17. Chris says:

    I imagine that all the nay-sayers on this deal are reminding themselves of the Sanchez deal last year. On it’s face, this is a good deal for the Royals, only bad if he’s barely a 1WAR guy next year, and only bad in the strictest of senses.

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  18. Joe says:

    Dave….. you’ve been beating the inflation drum for the last several offseasons and you tend to weave it into an analysis of every contract.

    Yet there has been virtually ZERO FA $/WAR inflation over the last 4 years.

    Eventually you will be right and I’m sure we will get an “Aha, I told you so” article, but I think this is now the 3rd offseason you’ve been driving this narrative with no actual data or analysis. We haven’t even hit the 5mil/ FA WAR # that you’ve been using the last 2 offseasons.

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  19. TKDC says:

    When are we going to get the complementary article on Brandon Sisk?

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  20. Tomcat says:

    If the the Royals offer Hochevar 5 mill in arb that is 20 million committed to Hoch, Santana, and Volstad for 2013 I understand the concept of throwing stuff at the wall, but why not just sign Joe Blanton for 2/18?

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    • Chris says:

      I totally agree, but then, I’m kind of a Blanton fan. I’d rather Blanton than either of Santana or Volstad, and of course rather Blanton than both…

      But I wonder if it’s more difficult to construct a rotation than is apparent. Billy Beane makes it look easy. But, with Volstad, Hochevar, Santana, Paulino, and Chen, Dayton Moore gets to afford to keep Montgomery and Odorizzi down at AAA for another (or, until someone or three gets hurt) and preserve their prospect status. Duffy gets to come back when he’s ready. A rotation of Blanton/Hoch/Paulino/Chen still leaves a hole – a hole filled by someone like say Dallas Braden who’s no more likely to produce at the major league level than anyone else.

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  21. maqman says:

    Inflation created by new regional media rights brought Pujols to the Angels and priced the Dodgers at $2.2 billion. It’s already here and it ain’t going away. The newly doubled national rights kick in in 2014 and are worth $50MM a year to every team, less the Comish’s cut. The Dodgers new deal being negotiated very soon has been reported as being worth up to $225MM a year for 25 years. Teams can by now and back load contracts or take on debt for a year, they know what’s coming.

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  22. KC Oracle says:

    The thing that bugs me as a Royals fan is that the team did not use the huge leverage it had over Guthrie after the trade to get a club friendly option for 2013 and maybe 2014. Guthrie needed starts or he was not even going to get a guaranteed contract. The Royals gave him the starts that allowed him to become an attractive commodity. The Royals should have used the starts to get a $6 to $8 million options for 2013 and 2014. They blew it.

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  23. BJsWorld says:

    Bringing in Santana only makes sense IF:

    1. He pitches very well and creates a trade market OR
    2. He pitches very well and is worth a qualifying offer at the end of the year

    The reality is that Santana could very well be worth 3 wins, more than justifying his value in terms of WAR in a vacuum. However, if the team only wins 75 games then that value, in real dollars, is next to nothing. They could have thrown out a replacement level player at league minimum, win 72 games, and bring in exactly the same revenues.

    I just don’t see a lot of positives here. If Santana goes gangbusters then this will be a shrewd move. However, the probability of that happening is no greater than 25%. It’s not a bet that I would take.

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    • Paul says:

      Exactly. In the context of expectations for the team, it’s a non-move. Without very significant upgrades in other areas, making them a legit .500 team on paper before they begin to make moves like this, it’s just re-arranging the deck chairs.

      The only difference between the Santana move and the Volstad waiver claim is that when they fail to sign anybody who will legitimately improve their chances to be a .500 team, they can still say they spent a bunch of money trying. When in reality, it’s just smoke and mirrors, as per usual.

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