December 12, 2014

Twins sign Ervin Santana to four-year, $55 million contract

Ervin Santana Twins

Last offseason Ervin Santana turned down the Royals' one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to hit the open market as a free agent. Once there he found most teams unwilling to give him a multi-year contract for big money and forfeit a top-60 draft pick, so he ended up settling for a one-year, $14.1 million deal with the Braves. He had a solid year in Atlanta, but it was worse than his 2013 season in Kansas City, yet this time around the process played out differently.

Santana again turned down a one-year qualifying offer, this time worth $15.3 million from the Braves, but instead of settling for another one-year contract the Twins forfeited a second-round draft pick and gave him a four-year, $55 million deal that includes a fifth-year option for 2019. It is now the largest free agent contract in Twins history, surpassing the four-year, $49 million deal handed out to Ricky Nolasco last offseason.

Nolasco's first season in Minnesota was a mess, but at the time of the signing last offseason his resume was relatively similar to Santana's resume now. Nolasco was 31 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 199 innings with a 3.70 ERA, 3.58 xFIP, and 165/46 K/BB ratio. Santana is 32 years old and coming off a season in the National League during which he threw 196 innings with a 3.95 ERA, 3.47 xFIP, and 179/63 K/BB ratio.

Back then Nolasco had a 4.37 ERA with 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.29 ERA with 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. Santana has a 4.17 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, including a 4.06 ERA with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his three most recent years. It's not a perfect comparison. Santana has more time in the American League and throws harder, among other differences. But you get the idea.

Nolasco was not at the top of my list for preferred pitching targets last offseason, but a four-year, $49 million commitment seemed reasonable within the context of the free agent pitching market. It obviously looks terrible now in large part because Nolasco pitched hurt for much of the season while hiding the injury from the Twins, but $49 million for four seasons of a previously durable mid-rotation starter was more or less the going rate.

And now the same is true of $55 million for four seasons of Santana, who has started at least 30 games and thrown at least 175 innings in five consecutive seasons. In four of those five years he posted an ERA under 4.00, with the exception being a miserable 2012 season with the Angels book-ended by two solid years on both sides. His fastball velocity has remained stable at 91-93 miles per hour and he leans very heavily on a low-80s slider, particularly as a strikeout pitch.

Among the 101 starters with at least 250 innings during the past two seasons Santana ranks 48th in ERA, 38th in xFIP, 45th in strikeout rate, 54th in walk rate, and 55th in ground-ball rate. Toss in durability and Santana has fit solidly into the No. 2 or No. 3 starter category depending on your definition of that label. His control can be spotty and as a fly-ball pitcher keeping the ball in the ballpark can be an issue, which is how Santana allowed an MLB-high 39 homers in 2012.

Santana signing for $55 million now, much like Nolasco signing for $49 million then, are examples of the Twins paying reasonable, market rates for good but not great veteran players to address an area of clear weakness for the present team. That doesn't mean the signings will necessarily work out positively, as Nolasco has shown so far, and it doesn't mean the biggest investment will have the biggest payoff, as Phil Hughes and his three-year, $24 million contract has shown so far.

Santana makes the Twins better and while it's possible to quibble about whether he's worth $55 million versus, say, $40 million or $70 million, they haven't come close to maximizing payroll in recent years anyway. Giving up a draft pick to make a four-year commitment to a 32-year-old is the risk, particularly with Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco locked up for multiple years in a rotation that may soon want to make room for guys like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, and Trevor May.

In the short term the rotation seems set. Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco have multi-year deals, Kyle Gibson isn't going anywhere after a decent showing at age 26, Mike Pelfrey is still under contract for $6 million, and the Twins somewhat surprisingly tendered Tommy Milone a contract at a projected arbitration salary of $2.8 million. Barring a trade or a change of heart the Opening Day rotation looks to be Hughes, Santana, Nolasco, Gibson, and either Pelfrey or Milone.


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November 6, 2013

Free agent pitching options: Top-of-the-rotation starters

Dating back to the 2011 season Twins starting pitchers have posted a combined 5.08 ERA for the worst mark in baseball and the only other rotation with an ERA above 4.80 during that three-year span plays half its games at Coors Field. In those three seasons Twins starters ranked 26th, 29th, and 30th in ERA. They also ranked 28th, 30th, and 30th in strikeout rate, including a pathetic 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings this year while no other team was below 6.0.

To figure out their options for addressing the dreadful rotation via free agency I've grouped the available arms into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. First up are the top-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on a contending team. By definition there are only around 40 of those guys across baseball, but a decent number of them are hitting the open market at the same time.

2013 Chicago Cubs Photo DayMatt Garza - RHP - 155 innings - 3.82 ERA - 3.73 xFIP - 136/42 K/BB

There are less likely Twins reunions (Kyle Lohse, for instance), but not many. Garza was misguidedly traded away for Delmon Young as a 23-year-old in 2007 and has gone on to post a sub-4.00 ERA in every season since. He never quite developed into an ace, but has been a solid No. 2 starter with good strikeout rates and mediocre control. He bounced back fairly well from an injury wrecked 2012 campaign and at age 30 is likely in line for a huge payday.

2013 New York Yankees Photo Day

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP - 201 innings - 3.31 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 150/43 K/BB

For the second straight offseason Kuroda is one of the elite free agent pitchers available and for the second straight offseason no one seems to think there's any chance he does anything but re-sign with the Yankees. Kuroda will be 39 years old before Opening Day, but showed zero signs of slowing down this year in terms of workload, raw stuff, or effectiveness and has posted a sub-3.50 ERA in each of the past four years. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Pittsburgh Pirates Photo DayA.J. Burnett - RHP - 191 innings - 3.30 ERA - 2.92 xFIP - 209/67 K/BB

Burnett was written off as a bum thanks to three ugly seasons in New York, but the Pirates gladly let the Yankees pay them to take him for two seasons and got 393 innings of a 3.41 ERA. Among the 81 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title this year Burnett ranked fourth in strikeout rate, second in ground-ball rate, and eighth in xFIP, but at age 37 it's possible he'll retire and if not the Pirates seem confident he'll re-sign.

2013 Toronto Blue Jays Photo DayJosh Johnson - RHP - 81 innings - 6.20 ERA - 3.58 xFIP - 83/30 K/BB

Johnson has always struggled to stay healthy (150-plus innings four times in eight seasons) and always pitched like an ace when not hurt (3.40 career ERA), but this year he was injured and ineffective. However, his secondary numbers were vastly superior to his bloated 6.20 ERA, including more than a strikeout per inning, and his fastball averaged 93 miles per hour. At age 30 no free agent pitcher has more upside, but Johnson's injury history is impossible to ignore.

2013 Kansas City Royals Photo DayErvin Santana - RHP - 211 innings - 3.24 ERA - 3.69 xFIP - 161/51 K/BB

No free agent pitcher improved his stock more than Santana, who went from the Angels dumping his $13 million salary on the Royals to throwing 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA at age 30. It's perfect timing and his horrible 2012 now looks out of place next to sub-4.00 ERAs in 2010, 2011, and 2013, but Santana remains very homer-prone and hasn't topped 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings since 2008. And he'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Cleveland Indians Photo DayUbaldo Jimenez - RHP - 183 innings - 3.30 ERA - 3.62 xFIP - 194/80 K/BB

Jimenez emerged as a young ace for the Rockies and was acquired by the Indians in a mid-2011 blockbuster, but his raw stuff steadily declined and he was a mess in 2012. He got back on track in a big way this year, throwing 183 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 194 strikeouts, but his average fastball velocity actually fell even further to a career-low 91.7 miles per hour and he's always been extremely wild. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Atlanta Braves Photo DayTim Hudson - RHP - 131 innings - 3.97 ERA - 3.56 xFIP - 95/36 K/BB

One of the best, most underrated starters of this generation, Hudson was having another effective year at age 37 when a fractured ankle ended his season in July. Hudson is overlooked because he doesn't rack up tons of strikeouts, but among all pitchers with at least 1,000 innings as starters since his debut in 1999 he ranks fourth in ground-ball rate and fifth in homer rate. It seems doubtful that he'd want to finish his career on a non-contender, but Hudson is a helluva pitcher.

2013 Washington Nationals Photo DayDan Haren - RHP - 170 innings - 4.67 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 151/31 K/BB

Haren's health status made him a big question mark last winter and he chose a one-year, $13 million deal with an eye on resurrecting his value and hitting the open market again. Things went horribly for him early on, but from July 1 through the end of the season he started 15 games with a 3.29 ERA and 84/18 K/BB ratio in 88 innings. Injuries and diminished raw stuff make Haren a risk at age 33, but his secondary numbers were much more impressive than his ERA.


For a lot more about the Twins' free agent pitching options, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.