Ervin Santana's Smooth Debut Proves He Belongs on Baseball's Best Starting Staff

Martin GandyFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

USA Today

When the Atlanta Braves signed Ervin Santana halfway through spring training, there were big expectations for the would-be ace pitcher.

Atlanta not only stretched its payroll to the max, but it gave up a coveted first-round pick to sign Santana—a move the Braves felt they were forced to make after season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

They were looking for Santana to reverse their recent misfortune.

Julio Teheran is the only member of the current starting pitching staff that entered spring training with a secured spot in the Atlanta rotation.

As the season began, the rest of the staff would be made up of two young pitchers with 13 major league starts between them—Alex Wood and David Hale—and a veteran starter in Aaron Harang who did not make the Cleveland Indians' rotation in spring training.

After a week of games, the Braves' starting pitcher with the highest ERA is actually Teheran (2.77), with the other three fill-ins all sporting ERAs under 2.00.

Coming into Wednesday night’s game, this so-called depleted starting pitching staff had the best starters’ ERA in baseball at 1.61.

Now the Braves are no longer looking for Santana to reverse their fortune, but add to their wealth instead.

Some Braves writers and fans were concerned that Santana would not be sharp or ready for this start. In his one and only rehab start for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves last Friday, Santana allowed five earned runs on eight hits and four walks in just over five innings of work.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien, the Braves said that Santana was let down by some bad defense behind him, but those walks were troubling. There were concerns on the minds of many in Atlanta as Santana took the mound on Wednesday.

Santana even helped himself with a hit and run scored.
Santana even helped himself with a hit and run scored.Todd Kirkland

Nothing says easing into the first start of the year with a new team like facing a weak offensive team. The New York Mets were projected to be one of the weaker offenses in the National League this season, and coming into Wednesday night’s game, they had scored the fifth-fewest runs per game in the NL.

Just about the only way it could have gotten any easier for Santana would have been if he were facing the Braves, who had the worst offense in baseball coming into the game with just 2.14 runs per game.

Santana started the game throwing nothing but strikes—literally. The first 20 pitches he threw were all strikes. He didn't throw his first ball until the second inning. He didn't throw his second ball until the fourth inning.

In eight innings of work, he threw just 88 pitchers, 65 of which were strikes. He allowed only three hits, walked none and didn't allow a run.

Having thrown just 88 pitches, Santana could have come back out for the ninth inning and attempted to complete the shutout, but the Braves chose to protect his arm in this game despite Santana having thrown 101 pitches in his rehab start last week.

With his late start to the season, there was no reason to extend him another inning.

The Braves are saving his arm for when they need it most—the postseason (they hope).

If Wednesday night was a preview of what Santana can do, then it certainly seems like the team made the right move by extending its payroll and giving up a draft pick to sign Santana.

Perhaps the early dominance of the four other guys in the rotation made this debut easier for Santana. Instead of walking into a situation where he was being looked upon to be the savior of a struggling staff, he could go to the mound more relaxed knowing that he would be just another one of the five good pitchers in the Braves' rotation.

Coming into the game, the Braves' starting pitching rotation had performed better than any other staff in the majors. Now they've added a former All-Star pitcher to that mix.

This scene could be repeated two more times before the month is over, as Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are both working their way back to the majors.

The Braves hope to see the smiling face and dominant stuff of Ervin Santana every five days.
The Braves hope to see the smiling face and dominant stuff of Ervin Santana every five days.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Minor was slowed in spring training because of offseason surgery and Floyd is returning from Tommy John surgery.

Both starting pitchers will join Santana and Teheran in the rotation in a few weeks, and at that time, the Braves will have a tough choice to make regarding which of the remaining starters stay in the rotation—Wood, Hale or Harang.

One month ago, Medlen left a spring training mound with an arm injury that would require season-ending Tommy John surgery. A day later, Beachy left his spring training start with an arm injury that would also require Tommy John surgery.

In the span of just a month, the Braves have gone from not knowing who would fill out the final two or three spots in the rotation to being at full strength with the best starting staff in baseball.