Atlanta will be Ervin Santana's first tour of the NL after stops in Anaheim and Kansas City. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
On Sunday, Kris Medlendamaged his ulnar collateral ligament in his start against the Mets. On Monday, Brandon Beachy, who is still working his way back from 2012 Tommy John surgery, left his start against the Phillies early with elbow and biceps tightness. On Tuesday, it was announced that Beachy would miss his next start. On top of that, Mike Minor is behind schedule this spring due to shoulder soreness that is being blamed on his inactivity following surgery on his urethra in December, and offseason signing Gavin Floyd isn't expected back from his own Tommy John rehabilitation until May. Thus, the Braves made a move that would have been shocking on Saturday but made perfect sense on Wednesday in signing Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract.
Santana's contract is for the exact amount of the qualifying offer the right-hander declined from the Royals in November, and it comes with the added cost of the Braves' top draft pick, which would have been the 26th overall in June. However, given the suddenly bleak outlook for the Braves' rotation and Atlanta's anticipated battle with the Nationals atop the National League East in the coming season, both the contract and the draft pick were easy prices to pay for a starting pitcher who was considered one of the top arms, if not the top arm, on this winter's free agent market.
That's not to say that Santana is an ace, but with the Braves looking at a rotation in which only sophomores Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are currently healthy and non-roster invitee Freddy Garcia could wind up playing a major role, the availability of Santana, whose market this winter was suppressed by the draft pick attached to his price, was a godsend for Atlanta. The 31-year-old Santana has had an erratic career, but on the whole he has been a bit above league average over the last six seasons (104 ERA+ with solid peripherals). He pitched well in his walk year last year, posting a career-best 3.24 ERA (127 ERA+) for Kansas City with a 3.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.14 WHIP, both of which were the second-best marks of his career. The move to the National League and the incentive of once again being in a walk year, and incentive that may be even greater this season following his disappointing winter, all bode well for Santana's continued success.
What's more, if Santana does pitch well in the coming season, the Braves could extend him a qualifying offer themselves, which would mean they would either get him back on a roughly identical one-year deal for 2015, or get their draft pick back next June (albeit a few spots lower in the compensation round). In the meantime, with Santana in the fold, the Braves expect their rotation will, by mid-April (which is when both Santana and Minor project to be ready), include Santana, Teheran, Minor, Wood, and either Beachy or Garcia, and that by mid-May, Floyd will join that group, either replacing Garcia or, if Beachy has proven healthy and effective, pushing Wood to the bullpen.
That effectively makes Santana the team's replacement for Medlen, who had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and is scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews, the doctor who performed that surgery, later this week for a second opinion on the MRI he had on Monday. The Braves' team doctors found that MRI inconclusive but, according to general manager Frank Wren, it did "show some involvement with the ligament." On Wednesday morning, Medlen said he is preparing himself to undergo a second reconstructive surgery on his elbow, which would rule him out for the entirety of 2014. As for Wood, the Braves would seem to be happy to move him into the bullpen, where he posted a 2.08 ERA and 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 appearances last year, if Beachy is able to take his spot in the rotation. Still, given the number of question marks above Wood on the depth chart, he could wind up making 20 or more starts this season even if one of those two succeeds in coming back. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Wood acquitted himself well in 11 starts last year as well (3.54 ERA, nearly a strikeout per inning), but it does point back to the need for Santana, who despite spraining his UCL in 2009, has averaged 210 innings a year over the last four seasons.
The Orioles and Blue Jays were also said to be hot after Santana in the last week, but while the Orioles are a team on the bubble and the Blue Jays are in desperate need of help in their rotation, it's difficult to argue that either would have benefited as much from Santana as Atlanta will. The Braves are defending division champions, their rotation is in shambles, and their primary rival is a strong team in Washington. For all of the misfortune the Braves' rotation has experienced this spring, it was incredibly fortuitous for the team that Santana was available and, after a winter of frustration, willing to accept what amounts to a pillow contract.