SAM MELLINGER

Giving Ervin Santana a lucrative long-term deal might not be Royals’ best play

Updated: 2013-11-04T22:07:22Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Ervin Santana represents the decision that will shape this Royals offseason, and if you look closely, you see this is something like a trap door disguised as a pile of gold.

The Royals’ trick will be in warding off temptation, in maintaining a clear mind about a risk-reward balance. The challenge for fans and media will be in avoiding the surface analysis that if the Royals don’t offer a big enough free-agent contract to keep Ervin Santana in Kansas City, they have failed and gone cheap.

History — both Santana’s and baseball’s — makes clear the dangers in giving him a large and long-term commitment.

The truth is there may come a time to justifiably call out the Royals for not spending enough (we’ll talk more about this as the offseason goes on), but allowing another team to overwhelm Santana with a contract would not necessarily be that time.

Free agency will begin after the World Series, and the Royals will have at least two advantages in retaining Santana. The Royals will make what in MLB terms is a “qualifying offer,” meaning a team that signs Santana would give up a first- or second-round draft pick in 2014. A year ago, this suppressed the market for Kyle Lohse.

The other advantage is that Santana very clearly enjoyed his time in Kansas City — you can see that in his Twitter account, and you could hear it from him all season. He knows the Royals’ ballpark and outfield are a good fit for him. Maybe that means he’d sign with the Royals if everything is equal, or even close.

But the Royals should be setting a limit on their offer, both in years and dollars, and not allow themselves to go over it.

A few years ago, an American League executive mentioned that the biggest mistakes teams make are usually in large and long-term commitments to free-agent pitchers. This man worked for a team with money, but said the easiest way for teams to create holes for themselves is to spend too much on starting pitchers in the open market.

Look it up, he told me, and then offered a crude but effective way to judge some of baseball’s biggest contracts.

With the executive’s guidance, I looked at 66 current or recent contracts worth $5 million or more, analyzing their innings pitched, ERA and adjusted ERA for up to three years before and after the contract. The executive described this as a simple way to judge contracts based on the standards the pitchers set for themselves.

The results are brutal for owners and general managers: 41 pitchers regressed after signing, and only 17 improved. Eight were close enough to be judged either way. That’s a success rate of less than 30 percent. Even if you count the close calls as successes — paying in most cases a higher price with more risk for the same production — the success rate is 38 percent.

It’s worth noting that both success rates I came up with are far higher than the executive expected, and more than the executive came up with in his own studies. His work was no doubt more detailed, and the local sports columnist may be a more benevolent judge than a man directly involved with his own boss’ money on the line.

Either way, these are some of baseball’s most expensive contracts, given to established big-leaguers with at least six years of experience, and owners would be much better off putting their cash on a roulette wheel.

The misses total well over 100 years of contracts and nearly $1.5 billion.

The Yankees hit on C.C. Sabathia, but what about $40 million for Carl Pavano (145 innings and nine wins over four seasons), $65 million for Chan Ho Park (112 innings and a 5.56 ERA over five years) or $36 million for Oliver Perez (6.81 ERA over 112 1/3 innings in three years)?

Santana’s history shows he is a particularly risky investment. He had what might be the best season of his career in 2013: a 3.24 ERA, 161 strikeouts and just 51 walks in 211 innings. In the world of Major League Baseball, he was worth every penny of his $13 million salary — but there’s a reason the Angels paid $1 million of that to essentially give him away.

In three of Santana’s previous six seasons, his ERA was over 5.00. He turns 31 in December.

Most starting pitchers don’t become better in their 30s. This century, 69 starting pitchers have thrown at least 180 innings, with an adjusted ERA at least 5 percent better than their respective league’s average, at 26 years old. That number is cut in half (35) for 31-year-olds, and by another third (22) for 32-year-olds.

Nobody can be sure when Santana — who’s had elbow problems, and whose slider is critical for success — will start to struggle.

We only know that time will catch up to him, like it does with everyone. And that the Royals would be prudent not to be the team owing him eight-figure salaries once that happens.

So past a certain point — a humble suggestion would be three years and $45 million — the Royals should let some other team take on the risk.

The Royals have young pitching on the way. You saw Yordano Ventura. You’ll probably see Kyle Zimmer next year — multiple scouts within and outside of the Royals’ organization thought Zimmer could better help the big-league team last season than Ventura. And Danny Duffy has shown bursts of stardom.

The Royals might be better served finding another veteran, low-risk/high-reward solution if Santana’s price rises too high and use the bigger money to bolster the offense.

This club will have the ability and motivation to spend money this offseason, and should be expected to do it. But there’s a difference between spending and spending wisely.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger.

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