On Tuesday, Minnesota Twins interim GM Rob Antony received some derision on Twitter after the Star Tribune's Phil Miller relayed the following comment regarding the prospects of trading starting pitcher Ervin Santana.
Is Ervin Santana available? Rob Antony says price would be high. "I'll be honest, I'm not calling anybody trying to move him."— Phil Miller (@MillerStrib) July 26, 2016
Certainly, Ervin Santana is no ace. His pitches don't feature a ton of movement, he doesn't generate many strikeouts, he pitched only half of 2015 due to a PED suspension, and in perhaps the most damning indictment of them all, he was a free agent pitcher signing by the Twins less than two seasons ago. He's also had the occasional awful season — he's ended three different campaigns (2007, 2009, and 2012) with ERAs and FIPs both over 5.00.
However, what did Santana do in the wake of Antony's controversial comment? Merely throw a complete game against the Braves later that night. That is only one outing against a poor team, but it does feel like the stink of the above factors has lingered on Santana, and might be affecting how people perceive him today.
Looking at his results, he should probably be held in slightly higher esteem. Since the beginning of 2013, Santana has put up a 3.71 ERA and 3.82 FIP (95 ERA- and 98 FIP-) over 620.1 innings. That's a slightly better than league average pitcher, over roughly three full seasons.
No, he doesn't get very many strikeouts, and his inherent stuff isn't too exciting; however, he's a 33-year old who still has above league-average velocity (92.5 mph) for a starting pitcher. That velocity has remained incredibly consistent over the last several years — he's been steady, and yet to show real signs of decline.
While he isn't missing a lot of bats, he's able to generate weaker contact (Baseball Savant reports an 88.8 mph average exit velocity in 2016, a bit better than the middle of the pack). A reason for this might be that he features strong command of his secondary pitches. Santana has been able to regularly spot his changeup and slider down-and-away against left-handed and right-handed hitters, respectively.
Additionally, he's basically as durable a pitcher as one could ask for. Earlier this season, Santana missed two starts with back spasms, but that is really the only injury in his recent history. While he obviously missed half of 2015, as far as we know he was healthy during that time. Before that, he had made at least 30 starts in five straight seasons out of seven overall. Even with the missed time early this season, he's still on pace to add to that total in 2016.
A recurring complaint about Antony's comment on Tuesday was about the amount of money committed to Santana. Over the next two seasons, he's owed $27 million, with a team option for 2019 (and a $1 million buyout). It does sound like a lot of money, but given recent contracts signed by backend starters, it doesn't seem very onerous. While much younger, Mike Leake displayed a 99 ERA- and 106 FIP- over four durable seasons before the Cardinals gave him $80 million last offseason. Ian Kennedy owned a 111 ERA- and 107 FIP- from 2012-2015, but then the Royals paid him $70 million.
This is the range teams are paying for a veteran, steady, number-four starter — even in what was a relative deep market for starting pitching in 2015. Were he a free agent this offseason, you'd certainly expect less than a five-year commitment, given his age. However, his track record is favorably comparable to the above examples, and there's almost no pitching to speak of in the impending free agent market.
Maybe the best comparable I can find is that of Jake Peavy's 2015-2016 contract. Also entering his age-34 season, Peavy produced a very similar 95 ERA- and 95 FIP- from 2011-2014, and was signed to a $24 million, two-year deal by the Giants. Adjust that deal for inflation while considering the lack of available pitching options, and Santana's current commitment would likely be a marginal bargain.
Additionally, that marginal bargain could become a more significant bargain if Minnesota were to include some of his future salary in any trade. The Twins might not be the team to eat significant money, but Antony's comments implied that they are comfortable operating within the team's current budget, and that includes Santana's salary. Doing that would increase the trade return to potentially include a moderately-valued prospect.
In terms of immediate impact, Santana has performed better this season than several other top trade chips, such as Andrew Cashner, Jake Odorizzi, or Matt Moore. You may not be excited to pencil Santana into a playoff rotation, but he can certainly help a team make sure that they need a playoff rotation at all. While they're at it, a contender like Baltimore or Miami might be able to shore up their 2017 rotation at a reasonable cost.