So it took less than 24 hours for my last column to be rendered completely obsolete. I believe that’s a personal record.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
It turns out that Dayton does have money to spend after all. And it turns out that the Royals were able to think outside the box a little too. Four weeks after I wrote that they should trade a reliever to the Angels for the non-buyout portion of Dan Haren’s 2013 option, they traded a reliever to the Angels for the non-buyout portion of Ervin Santana’s 2013 option.
It’s not ideal, but it’s close enough.
The positives regarding Santana:
1) He’s durable. He’s made at least 23 starts every year since 2005, and has made at least 30 starts each of the last three years. He threw 229 innings in 2011, 223 innings in 2010.
2) He’s not terribly old. He’ll be 30 next month, which is to say, he’ll be 30 when his contract is up. He’s past his peak, but given that age is less of a factor for pitchers than it is for hitters anyway, there’s no reason to expect an age-related collapse in the next 12 months.
3) He was a fine pitcher in 2010 and 2011. He had a 3.92 ERA in 2010, a 3.38 ERA in 2011. He was an All-Star in 2008, when he had 214 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 219 innings. He is certainly capable of brilliance.
1 )He sucked in 2012. He had a 5.16 ERA, and in just 178 innings, he managed to surrender a league-leading 39 homers.
2) The Angels play in one of the best pitchers’ parks in the league, making his numbers look better than they are (and they weren’t good to begin with). His ERA+ was 73 this year. Will Smith’s ERA+ was 77. Luke Hochevar’s was 71.
3) This isn’t the first time he’s sucked. He had a 5.03 ERA in 2009, and a 5.76 ERA in 2007.
The positives will be afforded the opportunity for a rebuttal.
4) Even though his ERA skyrocketed this year, Santana still maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. He whiffed 133 batters in 178 innings, and walked 59. His K rate of 6.7 per 9 was just a smidge off his career norm of 7.1 per 9; his BB rate of 3.1 was just a tick above his career rate of 2.9.
5) While Santana has always been fairly homer-prone throughout his career, his home run rate this year was a fluke. He’s actually become a more groundball oriented pitcher the last two seasons. His groundball rate from 2005 through 2010 ranged from 35 to 39%. The last two years, it’s been 43.5% and 43.2%. He used to be a flyball pitcher; now he’s pretty much average in that regard.
Here’s a listing of Santana’s HR/FB ratios starting in 2005: 9%, 8%, 12%, 9%, 13%, 9%, 10%, 19%. One of these things is not like the others…
6) While Santana was terrible for the season as a whole, he was considerably improved in the second half. In his first 19 starts, he had a 6.00 ERA and was the worst starting pitcher in the majors. But from July 30th onwards, Santana he had a 3.76 ERA; in 67 innings, he walked 17 and struck out 58, including two starts with double-digit strikeout totals. (He still gave up 16 homers in those 67 innings, amazingly enough.)
His turnaround might have been a fluke, but it coincides with this article from the Orange County Register, indicating that the Angels had subtly changed Santana’s release point, which put more bite back on his slider and helped him command his fastball better. Notably, the article was published on August 16th; Santana continued to pitch well after the article came out, so it has more validity than if it had been written as an ex post facto article after the season.
Negatives, you have the floor.
7) Santana might have been unlucky on homers, but he was also very lucky on hits – his batting average on balls in play was .241. Granted, his career mark of .284 is very good, but .241 is unsustainably low.
8) Santana’s fastball was down a full mile per hour last year – his fastball averaged 91.7 mph in 2012, down from 92.7 mph in 2011. Historically, when a pitcher loses that much velocity off his fastball from year to year, it’s rare for him to regain it.
Positives, your final statement?
9) In 2009, Santana didn’t lose one mph – he lost 2.3 mph, from 94.8 to 92.5 mph. His ERA jumped from 3.49 in 2008 to 5.03 in 2009. If velocity were everything, he would have been finished. But instead, in 2010 and 2011 – despite not regaining any velocity on his fastball – he was an above-average and durable starter each year.
Even last year, Santana was substantially more effective in August and September even though his fastball didn’t regain any velocity – if anything, he threw a little slower late in the year than early in the year.
Negatives, you get the last word.
10) You made my point for me. Santana’s velocity continued to decline throughout the 2012 season, and at some point he simply won’t throw hard enough to make batters respect his slider any more.
Alright, time for the judgment.
This isn’t a great trade, not by any means. The Royals will pay Ervin Santana $12 million in 2013, making him their highest-paid player. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be their best player. It’s not even clear that he’ll be an above-average player. Right now, if you told the Royals that Santana would give them 200 innings with a league-average ERA, they’d take that no questions asked. $12 million is a lot of money for league-average innings.
And yes, there is certainly the potential for Santana to go completely Sanchez on us next year. If his velocity continues to slide, and he starts nibbling more to compensate, and his walks shoot up…you’ll have a guy with a 5+ ERA making $12 million. If the Royals wanted that, they could just keep Luke Hochevar for half that. Oh wait, they’re doing that as well.
So no, it’s not a great trade. But ultimately it’s a trade I endorse. While acknowledging that there is a LOT of variance in what we can expect from Santana next year, I think 30 starts and an ERA in the mid-4s is a reasonable midpoint. His xFIP last year was 4.48, and it’s ranged from 3.48 to 4.55 the last five years. While the Angels play in a much better pitchers’ park than the Royals, Kauffman Stadium is actually a little tougher to hit home runs in, and given that the long ball is Santana’s biggest weakness, that’s a good fit.
Is 180 innings and a 4.50 ERA worth $12 million a season on the open market? Probably not. But it’s also not worth merely a one-year contract. If Santana were a free agent, he might be looking at 2 years and $16-18 million. It’s possible he might get more money if salary inflation really takes hold this winter, or he might get more years if a team was really desperate to clinch the deal.
In effect, what the Royals have chosen to do is to modestly overpay Santana in 2013 – on the order of about $4 million – rather than overpay him (or another pitcher) by an even greater amount in the long term. Essentially, the Royals have three ways to add a starting pitcher for 2013, and they all have downsides:
- They can sign a free agent pitcher to a long-term deal. The downside here is that while you’ll probably pay close to what that pitcher is worth in 2013, the risk of injury and decline goes up with each year, and you’re almost certain to have to guarantee three years, if not longer, for any pitcher worth his salt. There’s a good chance that almost all the money you’re paying that pitcher in 2016 or 2017 is dead money. (See also: Meche, Gil.)
- They can trade for an established pitcher approaching free agency. Here, you’re much less likely to overpay the pitcher, but you’re forfeiting prospects.
- They can do what the Royals did with Santana, and what I advocated they do with Haren: trade essentially nothing for a pitcher on a one-year deal. The downside is they’re paying too much money in 2013, but only in 2013, and they don’t touch their farm system at all.
(I have a soft spot for Brandon Sisk; four years ago one of my nurses, whose boyfriend had decided to plan independent baseball five years after his college career ended, told me that one of his teammates in the Continental League had been signed by the Royals. Sisk pitched very well in the low minors, but he’s a left-handed reliever whose stuff is a little short, and in 99 innings at Triple-A he’s walked 48 batters. He might have a long career as an up-and-down second left-hander, but he’s not someone the Royals are likely to miss at all.)
The Royals chose door #3, and I think that – at least to fill one of the holes in their rotation – it’s the way to go. The Royals think that they will have many more internal options for their rotation in 2014 than in 2013, and I agree with them. With their need for a starter being much more acute in 2013 than in future years, I think it’s reasonable for them to overpay for 2013 if it gives them flexibility in 2014 and beyond. That’s exactly what the Royals have done. They’ve improved their rotation for next year without making any financial commitments beyond that, and without touching their farm system.
That exact sentence could have been written a year ago for Jonathan Sanchez, and I probably wrote one very similar to it at the time. But that’s just it: we’ve already seen what the absolute downside is to acquiring Santana. It’s almost physically impossible for him to be any worse than Sanchez was this year. And yet as bad as Sanchez was, it was only one season. Forget for a moment that the Royals turned him into Jeremy Guthrie. Suppose they had just cut him in July, after he had done his best to single-handedly destroy their playoff hopes. As bad as he was, there was no more damage he could do. Compare that with, say, Jeff Francoeur, or to a lesser extent Bruce Chen, who both got two-year deals. Not only did they fail to help (or in Frenchy’s case, actively hurt) the Royals in 2012, we have to go through an entire off-season where they’re on the roster, where they’re on the payroll, and they serve no purpose other than to take up payroll and block better options.
The worst-case scenario involves him putting up a 7+ ERA in the first half of the season before he gets cut. But you know what? That’s no worse than the worst-case scenario if the Royals had signed Santana as a free agent to a one-year, $2 million contract. No matter what happens, he doesn’t hurt the Royals in 2014 and beyond, neither financially nor in terms of giving up future talent to get him.
Sure, he’ll cost the Royals a ton of money in 2013, money that could be used elsewhere – but at least that money is there in the first place. Maybe I overreacted to Moore’s comments after the Volstad signing, but if I did, I was hardly the only one. But now, not only has the Glass family authorized adding $12 million to the payroll, but according to Moore (who, admittedly, misled us with his previous comments), “We’re not done,” he said. “We’re going to try to continue to upgrade our rotation through trades that make sense…and we’re certainly going to explore free agency.”
That’s the most important part of this transaction. If Ervin Santana is the Royals’ Opening Day starter, we’re in trouble. If they add one more guy in front of him, they’ve got a chance to contend. If they add a guy in front of him and another guy next to him – say, Jeremy Guthrie – they have an even better chance to contend.
The addition of Santana puts the Royals’ payroll for next year at $71 million. Keep in mind, that includes $7.4 million for Luke Hochevar and Chris Volstad. If those two are just placeholders for a real starting pitcher, the Royals could add another $12 million-a-year guy – someone like a Josh Johnson in trade – cut Hochevar and Volstad, and still be around $75 million.
They could also backload a free agent contract, pushing some of those dollars to 2014 – when Francoeur and Chen come off the books – and beyond. Moore said so himself: “We can backload whoever we end up signing or whoever we end up trading for. We can structure the contract in a way that allows us to balance the dollars out.” And then we’ll find out how serious David Glass is about winning, and whether he’s willing to push the payroll another $5-10 million in 2013 to bring Guthrie back or add another comparable starter.
But for now, at least we know he’s serious enough about winning to add Ervin Santana and his salary. And we know that Dayton Moore is not letting his dream of dominating in 2015 or 2016 keep him from at least trying to contend in 2013. That’s damning with faint praise, perhaps. But it’s a much better look for the organization than where they were even 48 hours ago.