Santana Would Give Jays Depth, Innings

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Free agency has not been kind to Ervin Santana. Attached to draft-pick compensation for turning down a one-year $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Royals, the 31-year-old remains unsigned while the rest of the league has begun reporting to Florida and Arizona for spring training.

If Santana, who hit a weak market coming off a bounce-back campaign, wasn't linked to compensation, he would have already signed by now for a deal much greater than what he's likely to get. He entered the offseason as one of the top free-agent pitchers, but the compensation factor -- and perhaps concern over his elbow -- has shrunken the right-hander's list of interested suitors.

Although Santana is coming off a 3-win season, per Fangraphs.com, in which he threw 211 innings, many teams appear wary of committing a high AAV over multiple years for his services while also having to surrender a top draft pick in the process. The value and upside of a first-round pick is simply too much of an asset for many teams to part with. As a result, Santana's asking price has significantly lowered to the point that he has gone from an overpay candidate to someone who could potentially be inked to a team-friendly contract.

A few teams, including the Blue Jays, have protected first-round picks, meaning they would have to forfeit a second-rounder in order to sign Santana, something Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos has acknowledged the importance of. For a team like the Blue Jays, who are financially invested to compete and have a clear need for rotation help, losing a second-rounder to obtain a discounted Santana should not present a roadblock, especially when possessing two selections in the first round.

*In addition to having the No. 9 pick in the 2014 draft, the Blue Jays also select 11th, which is compensation for failing to sign 2013 first-rounder RHP Phil Bickford.

Who is Santana?

Known for his home-run tendencies as much as his unpredictability, Santana has basically been a league-average starter, perhaps a notch better, over his nine big-league seasons. He has had some extreme outlier seasons, like in 2008 when he was 6 wins above replacement, and 2012 when he was -1.0 WAR and then subsequently traded away by the Angels. But he's neither one of those pitchers and his track record suggests he's not quite as good as the the guy who in 2013 had his best year in terms of run prevention, ending the season with a 3.24 ERA.

Some of the success he had last season can be attributed to adding a two-seam fastball to his arsenal, which helped him continue a positive trend of inducing more grounders. Since 2010, hitters have put more balls in play against Santana on the ground than in the air, which is a good tradeoff for a pitcher who has at times struggled keeping the ball in the park. The favorable results he had in 2013 combined with his age make it easier to stomach the fact that he has posted an ERA north of 5.00 in two of the last five seasons. And the inflated 5.03 ERA he had in 2009 is potentially a bit misleading.

A 26-year-old with the Angels, Santana was forced to miss the beginning of the 2009 season after recovering from a UCL tear that he elected to treat with rehab over surgery. Santana didn't make his debut until mid-May, limiting him to his fewest amount of innings (139 2/3) since his rookie year in 2006, and was crushed over the first half of the season -- which included another stint on the disabled list -- before settling in and posting a 3.90 ERA post All-Star break. The next two seasons he went on to post ERAs of 3.92 and 3.38, respectively, before a career-worst year in 2012. Santana has had three seasons -- 2007, 2009, and 2012 -- in which he has posted an ERA over 5.00, all of which are years he struggled to keep the ball in the yard more so than usual.

The Dominican native has surrendered home runs at an above-average rate for his career, but his mark of 1.22 homers per nine innings -- which he hasn't approached in three of the last four seasons -- is inflated by those three dreadful years. In 2012, Santana allowed a whopping 39 homers in 178 frames, a mark of 1.97 per nine innings. His home run to fly ball rate was 18.9%, and it has never been higher than 12.8% in any other season. For his career, Santana's HR/FB ratio is 11%, and the league-average mark has only been higher than that twice since 2002, but never lower than 9.4%.

Skepticism that follows Santana is warranted because his performance last season has been anything but the norm. But his rough year in 2007 was a long time ago -- just like his 6-WAR year in 2008 -- and in 2009 he battled an elbow injury, which leaves 2012 as his most concerning year. It's not something to dismiss, especially with how recently it occurred, and neither is the home-run issues he has dealt with while pitching his home games in pitching-friendly environments. But Santana's overall body of work, and even recent history, carries more positives than negatives.

Arsenal

Santana throws a four-seam fastball, two-seamer, changeup and slider. The two-seamer, his sinker, is something he started relying on last season for the first time in his career. Data at Brooksbaseball.net says that Santana occasionally mixed in a two-seamer in both 2010 and 2011, scrapped the pitch in 2012 before increasing the usage to a career-high mark last season. Sinking the ball more proved to be a plus for Santana, as he drastically cut down his home-run rate compared to the previous year and induced grounders at a career-best mark (46.2 GB%), nearly three percent more frequently than in any other season.

He'll show lefties his fastball-changeup combination, and a slider, a pitch he generates the majority of his whiffs on. Righties don't see his changeup, not an uncommon move for a right-handed pitcher, and he counters that by increasing the use of his slider. That repertoire has allowed Santana to miss bats at just around a league-average rate over the course of his career.

Strikeouts continue to escalate throughout the game, and the last two years saw the league-average rate climb over 19% for the first time since 1916, which is as far back as the data at Fangraphs goes. Santana's K% over the last four seasons, starting in 2010, has been: 17.7, 18.8, 17.4, 18.7. Thanks to the uptick in the amount of bats he missed, opposing hitters struggled making contact against him more than any year outside of 2008.

The bump in strikeouts last season, combined with the decrease in homers and lowest-walk rate (5.9%, much better than league average) since 2008, helped Santana post his second-best FIP (3.93) -- a defense-independent stat -- ever. Santana's FIP is consistently high because of the homers, but he has outperformed it (posted a lower ERA than FIP) in each of the last four seasons -- all years in which his batting average on balls in play was .290 or lower (under .270 the last three years running), a mark better than the league-average rate (in the .290-.300 range).

As far as velocity goes, Santana, whose heater sits at 92 mph and can reach the mid-90s, was throwing both his fastball and slider -- a pitch he has turned to more often than any qualified starter since 2010 -- harder than what he was in 2012.

Rotation upgrade

Santana is mid-rotation material but can help a Blue Jays team full of backend options net a couple extra wins by pushing everybody down a peg on the depth chart. The 200-plus innings you hope to get out of him -- a mark he has reached in three of the last four years and five times in his career -- is perhaps his most appealing quality.

While far from a perfect way to compare pitchers, in terms of durability and preventing runs, at least, Santana's recent body of work resembles that of left-hander Mark Buehrle's. Since 2010, Santana and Buehrle have each made 128 starts -- only 11 pitchers have made more -- and have logged 840 1/3 innings, and 821 2/3, respectively. Santana has a 3.87 ERA over that stretch, while Buehrle has a mark of 3.92. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, meanwhile, has made 125 starts over 841 1/3 innings while compiling an ERA of 3.28.

That would give the Blue Jays a trio of pitchers who soak innings and have surrendered earned runs below what the cumulative league-average mark for starters has been since 2010 (4.10; 3.98 including relievers).

Brandon Morrow, who has been limited to a combined 179 innings over the last two seasons, remains the wildcard and upside arm in the rotation. With J.A. Happ likely slotting in as the fifth starter if the Blue Jays were to sign Santana, it would allow Toronto to start four of its top depth pieces in Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Kyle Drabek, and Sean Nolin at Triple-A Buffalo, with Esmil Rogers (out of options) sliding back to the bullpen to serve as the club's long reliever. This would leave the also out-of-options Todd Redmond on the outside looking in, but any rotation addition is likely to bump him out of Toronto's plans.

For a team possessing more options on the backend than the front, Santana is the perfect addition to the Blue Jays, even if the homer-friendly Rogers Centre is an imperfect park for him to pitch in.

h/t fangraphs.com & brooksbaseball.net