January 14, 2005

Extending Santana

Now that their roster is essentially set for the upcoming season, the big Twins news locally is that the team is working with Johan Santana on a contract extension. The Twins have Santana under control for two more seasons -- meaning he won't be a free agent until after the 2006 season -- so there isn't a tremendous amount of urgency. Still, I get the feeling that if something can't be worked out before the start of the season, things could get messy in a hurry.

One of the themes of the early days of this blog (of which Santana is the "Official Pitcher") was criticizing the Twins' handling of Santana. While I am a fan of the Earl Weaver method of breaking young pitchers in by having them work out of the bullpen early on, I felt that the Twins went a little overboard in that regard with Santana. By the time I began complaining about his usage, Santana had already been pitching out of the bullpen for three seasons. Then the Twins left him there to start the 2003 season, his fourth year in the majors, at which point I began to voice my disagreement.

There is little doubt that the Twins went above and beyond anything resembling Weaver's strategy. As I discussed back in early October, Weaver himself never waited five years to stick a young pitcher into the rotation, as young studs like Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor were all starters by the time they were 23 years old and, at the latest, in their third season. Santana wasn't a full-time member of the rotation until he was 25 and in his fifth year.

In the grand scheme of things, Minnesota's ultra-conservative handling of Santana probably cost him 20 or 30 starts, 150 or so innings, and maybe 10-12 wins. Now we are finding out that holding Santana back for four seasons may end up costing the team a whole lot more. Here's a quote about the contract negotiatations from the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

And there is this problem that looms over the negotiations: Several people close to Santana say he has not been happy with several decisions made by the Twins, including starting him in the minors in 2002 and having him begin the 2003 season in the bullpen. Those decisions already have affected him financially, because career starts is a key factor in arbitration.

If I was so worked up about what was happening to Santana, then it only seems logical that Santana himself would be upset about it too. This isn't a new revelation, either -- Santana voiced his complaints about being in the bullpen several times in the past, the loudest of which came when the Twins handed him a rotation spot and then took it away after signing Kenny Rogers before the 2003 season. I still remember seeing the "Rogers' signing angers Santana, request for trade possible" headline and immediately feeling sick.

Santana and his agent are clearly correct about the Twins' decisions costing him money, but it goes beyond the arbitration rulings. Yes, if he had been a full-time starter in 2002 and 2003 -- or even in just 2003 -- he'd have been awarded quite a bit more in arbitration. But what if he had been a full-time starter in just 2003 and had put together a year similar to what he did in 2004 (his first full season as a starter). Can you imagine how much he could ask for in these current contract negotiations if he had back-to-back Cy Young awards or two 20-win seasons?

It is obvious that Santana is still holding a bit of a grudge. The danger is that the Twins have upset Santana to the point that he doesn't have an open mind in negotiations or, more likely, has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to things like signing up to stay with the team in the future. He could choose to play hardball during the negotiations, which by itself could get ugly and contemptuous. Beyond that, Santana may decide to just turn down whatever offers the team makes (the first of which -- three years and $19.5 million -- borders on laughable) and see what happens in 2005.

If he pitches like he did in 2004, he'll be looking at one more season before hitting the free agent market, and he'll be in a situation similar to Carlos Beltran last year. If Santana is months away from free agency during the 2006 season, every other article you read about the team will be speculating on his future and every Yankees fan will be drooling at the prospect of adding him for the 2007 season. That is a situation the Twins desperately need to avoid if they hope to keep Santana around, because once a player can see the money on the horizon, a small-market team has very little chance.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Remaking the Diamondbacks (by Aaron Gleeman)

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