Royals are right: Ervin Santana’s terms remain too rich, and risky

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02/18/2014 10:47 PM

05/16/2014 11:43 AM

The Royals have spent the last two decades training their fans to expect the worst. Always the worst.

So there can be no complaining on their part that The Best Royals Team in a Generation (on paper, anyway) is greeted with some skepticism and second-guessing. To that end, the Orioles sent the Royals’ front office a bit of a pick-me-up by signing right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract.

The lingering criticism of an otherwise very solid Royals offseason is that right-hander Ervin Santana remains a free agent, available to the highest bidder, and a lot of fans have a hard time with the fact that the highest bidder almost certainly will not be the Royals.

The Royals won their most games since 1989 last year with the league’s best defense and ERA, which they achieved in no small part because Santana gave them 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA. Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy could each have terrific and long careers and never match those numbers in one season.

Industry insiders were generally split on the Jimenez-vs.-Santana debate going into the offseason, and Jimenez’s contract is basically identical to the one that right-hander Matt Garza signed with the Brewers. So if these deals are an indication of the remaining market, and provide a framework for Santana’s next contract, the Royals will look better for not joining the most serious bidders for Santana.

There are two simultaneous, somewhat conflicting truths here: 1) the Royals misread the market for Santana this offseason, and 2) even if they hadn’t signed Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal, they still probably would not go to four years and $50 million for Santana.

And justifiably so, no matter what many in Kansas City say.

Free-agent contracts for starting pitchers are always risky, and that’s true even if the starting pitcher didn’t just turn 31 with a history that includes both a lot of mileage and some questions among scouts and executives about how long his elbow can hold up.

When Santana is sharp, he is a joy to watch and a nightmare to swing against. He is smooth, relentless, and aggressive — according to FanGraphs, only David Price threw a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes among qualified American League pitchers last year. The lasting image of Santana in a Royals uniform is him striking someone out on a 1-2 slider, and then eating a banana in the dug-out on days between starts.

There is a dark side to Santana’s history, too. The elbow is certainly part of it — last year, 38.5 percent of Santana’s pitches were sliders, by far the biggest percentage in baseball.

But even if you trust the elbow — it should be noted that Santana has made 128 starts and pitched 840 1/3 innings over the last four years, both among baseball’s top 20 — there are wild inconsistencies in his performance that make a long-term deal especially risky. He has five good seasons among his nine in the big leagues. In the other four, he has missed starts and has a 5.16 ERA. Those are red flags when teams are investing $50 million or so in a 31-year-old pitcher.

None of this takes into consideration that the baseline for

any

large free-agent contract to a starting pitcher is a success rate of less than 30 percent.

Looking at various projection models and talking to several scouts, the long-term expectation for Santana is a drop-off from very good to good in 2014, followed by the normal decline you would expect from a starting pitcher in his mid-30s.

So while the Royals won’t be able to replace Santana’s production from 2013, it’s also unlikely that Santana will be able to replicate his success of 2013.

From the Royals’ side, the math is further complicated by the fact that they stand to gain a draft pick (and the proportionate spending allowance under MLB’s new draft rules) if and when Santana signs somewhere else.

Now, none of this means the Royals played this perfectly. Vargas and Santana are the same age, so the same disclaimers about regression apply here (though there is less in Vargas’ history to suggest either major risk or reward, and he will benefit from the Royals’ strong defense). The Royals went longer with Vargas than they would’ve liked with four years, but the $8 million average salary is a fine tradeoff.

The whole key to the rotation, besides health, remains Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. So the Vargas deal is a measured gamble. The Royals are purchasing (at a lower cost) the kind of stability they don’t see in Santana, in exchange for a better environment for the bigger potential of the young, homegrown starters (Kyle Zimmer could join this discussion after the All-Star break).

With a higher cost, Santana will almost certainly outperform Vargas this season. So in this way, even in a critical season to make good on the blockbuster trade that brought James Shields to Kansas City, the Royals are sacrificing some

now

with the long-term in mind.

The plan has its positives, especially in avoiding the risk of a big deal with Santana. But the plan will look a lot better if someone signs Santana to a contract similar to Jimenez’s.

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