When spring training began for the Atlanta Braves, one of the National League's best teams looked poised to return to the postseason and chase a World Series title. Within weeks, however, that dream was nearly dashed due to injuries within the starting rotation.
Enter Ervin Santana, who should turn out to be a season-saving acquisition. According to multiple reports, the pitcher signed a one-year, $14.1 million contract with the Braves on Wednesday (h/t Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk).
General manager Frank Wren gushed about Santana during an introductory press conference, per Ben Ingram of the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. "We felt like Ervin was the best guy on the market and this gives us a big shot in the arm for our rotation," Wren said.
Kris Medlen, who is slated to start on Opening Day after taking the ball as the Game 1 starter in the 2013 postseason, could be sidelined for the entire season if elbow ligament damage requires surgery, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
Brandon Beachy, a 2012 Tommy John surgery success story, is still looking to reclaim the form that made him one of the NL's best young pitchers in 2011. After only making five starts in 2013, the 27-year-old has battled biceps tightness this spring, perhaps a precursor of further setbacks, as noted by Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
With Opening Day on the horizon, the Braves were on the verge of slipping from the top of the NL hierarchy toward a group of flawed wild-card contenders.
On the surface, Santana is far from a season-saving or franchise-changing starer. Since arriving in the big leagues in 2005, the former Angels and Royals starter owns an ERA+ of 100. Based on league and park factors over the last nine seasons, Santana has been an average pitcher.
Yet, after posting 127 ERA+ in 2013, Santana hit the free-agent market hoping for a payday in excess of $100 million, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. However, when lucrative, long-term offers didn't arrive, a one-year deal became acceptable for the Dominican-born pitcher. If Santana excels again, he could hit the market next winter with an eye on a long-term deal.
For the Braves, Santana's success will be measured by an area of his game in which the nine-year professional has been far from average: durability.
With Medlen and Beachy profiling as health concerns for 2014, the Braves needed a pitcher that could provide bulk innings. Furthermore, the offseason losses of starters Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson left Atlanta vulnerable to injuries in a young rotation.
In total, Atlanta's Opening Day rotation could be without four starters that combined to provide 511.1 IP for manager Fredi Gonzalez's 2013 team.
Without Santana, lefty Mike Minor would have entered the season as the only starter on the staff to toss a 200-inning season in the majors. Now, by inking the impact free-agent arm, the Braves have helped to resolve this sudden issue with one of baseball's most durable pitchers.
Since the start of the 2010 season, only 11 pitchers in the sport have made more starts than Santana's 128, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Among the starters with less outings over the last four seasons are CC Sabathia, David Price and Cliff Lee—players who are routinely mentioned as durable, innings-eating machines but have actually taken the mound less than Santana in recent years.
Dating back to 2006—Santana's first full season in the majors—only 11 active pitchers have thrown more total innings. Some names that you won't see on the following chart are Jered Weaver, Tim Hudson and Josh Beckett, and the list is as follows:
|Innings Eaters: Most IP Since 2006 (Active Starters)|
|Mark Buehrle||1658.2||Blue Jays|
Fans may spin this as a rare opportunity to acquire a top-tier free agent in the middle of March, but the main implication of this transaction is simple to understand: within a matter of days, Atlanta became a fringe playoff contender.
With or without some combination of Medlen, Beachy and Santana, however, the Braves are likely still the fourth-best team in the National League, behind Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
But without all three of those arms, it would have been impossible to properly slot in this Braves team with a slew of other potential 2014 wild-card contenders. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, San Diego and Arizona are a few of those other contenders, and this summer promises to provide National League fans with an exciting race for the postseason.
Effectively, the Braves are asking Santana to replace Medlen in the rotation this season. If Medlen's elbow damage is less severe than initially expected, perhaps the two above-average starters could develop into a formidable mid-rotation tag team in August and September. For now, though, Santana becomes the new Medlen in Atlanta.
Based on the numbers each has provided last season, it's not an impossible request for Santana to heed.
|Medlen vs. Santana: 2013 Numbers|
By inking Santana, the Braves are betting on his durability and desire to hit the open market again next offseason after what the team hopes will be an excellent year in the pitcher-friendly NL. If the signing works out, Atlanta will rise above the other wild-card contenders and back into the top non-division-winner spot in the league.
For a team with so much talent in the everyday lineup, bullpen and top of the rotation, allowing injury concerns to derail a season in March would have been devastating. The Braves deserve credit for not allowing that to happen.