Despite the calendar flipping to spring, it's still winter for Atlanta Braves starter Ervin Santana. After sitting out the early portion of spring training while his free-agent plight commenced, the former Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals starter missed valuable time in camp.
When arriving to the Braves, Santana was rightly painted as a savior for a rotation in significant trouble due to injuries to projected starters Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. In the cases of Medlen and Beachy, Tommy John surgery will sideline them for the entire 2014 season.
In order for the Braves to thrive in the NL East and reprise a spot in the postseason, Santana must provide innings, value and excellence.
During a career-best year in Kansas City during 2013, Santana was a workhorse. In 211 innings, the veteran righty posted a 127 ERA+ for the Royals. If he can offer similar production to Atlanta's rotation in 2014, the Braves will likely regard him as much more valuable than the 2.9 WAR he was credited with last season.
With a late start, Santana isn't quite ready for the regular season. By mid-April, the 31-year-old could come to the rescue for a rotation badly in need of bulk innings, leadership and excellence.
When reacting to Santana's first spring start, keep his trajectory in perspective. For his arm, March 20 was no different than Feb. 27.
How did Santana fare during his first game in Braves uniform? Here are updates and takeaways from the debut of Atlanta's rotation savior.
During Santana's first innings of the spring, his fastball velocity sat in the low 90s. For the Braves, that's more than enough for a pitcher who lives on movement and sinking his fastball. As long as Santana can keep the ball down, ground balls should commence.
If the newest Brave allows fly balls, home runs are sure to follow. In 2012, Santana allowed 39 home runs as a member of the Angels. Last year, that number dropped to 26 in Kansas City.
According to Fangraphs, Santana has thrown his fastball at an average speed of 92.8 mph during a nine-year career in the majors. While reports from Port St. Lucie, Fla., had his velocity between 91-94 mph, the Braves should be trilled with a pitcher close to regular-season strength in his first outing.
After 22 pitches, Santana was done on the mound. For a pitcher who hasn't thrown in a competitive game since last September, the buildup to the 100-pitch mark necessary for regular-season baseball has now begun.
The New York Mets' Eric Young Jr. led off the game with a bunt single, clearly testing Santana's reflexes and timing on the mound. From there, he came around to plate a run in the bottom of the first inning.
Santana's second and final inning was easy and impressive against a Mets lineup that included most of its regular starters. Of the 22 pitches, 14 were strikes. Early on, command was not an issue for the veteran arm.
Despite looking fresh and powerful enough to head out for the third inning, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had no plans to push his newest arm this early in his spring trajectory, per David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I don’t think it’s worth it to take a chance, to cut some days or some starts (in his build-up process),” Gonzalez said.
Before exiting the game, Santana—in his first-ever start as a National League pitcher—took a trip to the plate for an at-bat.
In reality, nothing Santana did in his first start—barring an unfortunate injury—would have changed the good vibrations this signing brought to Atlanta's clubhouse. When the Braves committed $14.1 million for his right arm, it was about the entire 2014 season, not an inaugural spring start.
Over the next few weeks, more criticism and critiques will follow Santana's every movement in spring training and extended spring training. When the Braves head north for Opening Day, expect Santana to stay behind for a few weeks to build up his pitch count and stamina. As each outing arrives, location, velocity and results will be critiqued.
Through one day, the look of a veteran in command of his arm and performance was evident when Santana took the mound against a new division foe.