It's March and Ervin Santana is still sitting out there in free agency without a home. The Kansas City Royals still have a glaring hole at the top of their starting rotation.
The solution for both sides would seem to be pretty simple at this point: a one-year deal for the $14.1 million qualifying offer that Santana turned down at the start of free agency. It allows both sides to save face and move forward for the 2014 season.
Santana would come back to the Royals with the understanding that the Royals would not place the compensation tag on Santana again after this season, making him a true free agent. They could also offer a handshake agreement to trade him if the team falls out of contention by the July trade deadline.
It seems obvious. But it hasn't happened yet. Why?
The 31-year-old Santana was excellent for Kansas City in 2013, and in the process, he salvaged his career and looked primed to cash in on a pitching-starved free-agent market. Don't be deceived by his 9-10 record; the rest of the numbers are indicative of a top-tier starter—a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings with a 1.142 WHIP.
The draft pick compensation has obviously become a bigger hindrance to all of the players and teams in MLB more than anyone would have anticipated. In the past, teams would not have been nearly so reluctant to surrender draft picks. Teams have now come to the understanding that young, cost-controlled prospects are the most valuable commodity in the sport.
This slow market should actually be helping the Royals at this point. At the start of free agency, it looked extremely unlikely that Santana would return to Kansas City. Now, unless Santana wants to give himself away, the Royals are clearly his best option at this point.
Which begs the question: What else might be holding up a deal for Santana?
Besides being reluctant to surrender a draft pick, teams might simply be wary of Santana's inconsistent performance and be unwilling to commit to a long-term deal when they are unsure of the return. Santana has always displayed tremendous stuff, but the results have mostly failed to live up to expectations during his career after a solid start.
Santana spent his first eight seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, posting a 96-80 record with a career ERA of 4.19. Indicative of his struggles to put it all together with the Angels was the fact that he only posted three seasons of a sub-4.00 ERA during in his eight-year stint with Los Angeles.
Payroll might be another factor playing a huge part in keeping the Royals from re-signing Santana. Last year, the Royals spent $81.8 million on player salaries. This year, they are already on the books for $90 million without Santana. Increasing payroll another $14 million might be tough to justify, but this would be a one-year deal to try and get the team to the playoffs.
This is a huge year for Kansas City. The Royals finished with a 86-76 record in 2013, good enough for third place in the AL Central. Kansas City has to seize the opportunity in front of it to try and make the playoffs this season. The Royals will likely lose staff ace James Shields to free agency at the end of the season, putting even more pressure on Kansas City to make the most of the 2014 season.
On paper, the Kansas City rotation will be led this season by Shields and veteran Jeremy Guthrie. Earlier in the winter, the Royals invested $32 million into a four-year deal with lefty Jason Vargas. The deal for Vargas seemed far too rich back in November and looks even worse now in March. That money looks like it would have been much better spent on trying to bring back Santana and solidifying the Royals rotation.
Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost were both given two-year contract extensions, taking them both through the 2015 season. Even with the extensions, patience must be running out and there has to be some frustration from fans and ownership about the Royals' inability to get over the hump within the division. Last season was only the second time since 1993 that the Royals have finished with a winning record.
The Royals have a good, young core of position players like Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, along with a great bullpen headed by Greg Holland. The Royals are a team who might be capable of surprising in the American League this season
But without Santana, it's hard to see the Royals contending for a playoff spot.
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