Is Johan Santana Capable of Being Late-Season Baltimore Orioles X-Factor?

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

Getty Images

It's been an interesting offseason for the Baltimore Orioles, as they made mostly under-the-radar moves up until the past couple weeks, when they added a pair of the top remaining free agents on the market in slugger Nelson Cruz and right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.

That late-offseason push continued on Tuesday, as they signed reclamation project Johan Santana to a minor league contract, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward move for a team that could certainly use all the pitching help it can get. Heyman put it perfectly in a subsequent article on the subject: "The signing of Santana is tantamount to spending a few bucks on a Powerball ticket. In the grand scheme of things, there really isn't much risk, but the incredibly unlikely reward is big."

Turning 35 years old this month, whether Santana has anything left in the tank at this point is a legitimate question, as he missed the entire 2013 season recovering from shoulder surgery following a re-tear of his anterior capsule. The original injury came down the stretch in 2010 and wound up costing him the entire 2011 season as he recovered.

Still, it looked like the two-time Cy Young Award winner had returned to form to kick off the 2012 season. He earned the Opening Day start for the Mets, and went 3-2 with a 2.38 ERA through his first 11 starts.

That solid 11-start streak was capped by a four-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres and a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. In hindsight, the no-hitter looks to have done more harm than good, though, as he was not the same pitcher after the 134-pitch outing.

He went on to go 3-7 with an 8.27 ERA over his final 10 starts before shutting it down with lower back problems in August. The back problems continued to plague him into spring training last year, before he eventually re-tore his anterior capsule and was lost for the season.

The question of whether he can make an impact in 2014 is as much about his health as it is about where his stuff is at following those two surgeries.

In his prime, Santana had a devastating fastball/changeup/slider combination, and from 2004-08 he went 86-39 with a 2.82 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and averaged 238 strikeouts and 229 innings per season.

Even before the shoulder injuries set in, his stuff was starting to show signs of decline back in 2009 as he dealt with some elbow issues. Upon returning in 2012, his results were promising, but his stuff was clearly a tick below what it used to be, as his velocity was down across the board.

Pitch Velocity

He threw for seven different teams a week ago, and his fastball was reportedly only sitting in the 77-78 mph range and topping out at 81, according to a report from George A. King III of the New York Post.

Granted he's still recovering at this point and still has to build up some arm strength, but we're talking about a significant drop in velocity to the point that one has to wonder if he'll be able to get big league hitters out.

He likely won't be a factor until the second half of the season, if at all, but is there another way the Orioles could utilize Santana?

The team's current rotation figures to be Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez, with Suk-min Yoon, Zach Britton and top prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy in the mix as well.

Counting on Santana to be a starter at this point may be asking a little much, but he could be a useful pitcher out of the bullpen.

As things stand right now, Brian Matusz is the only left-handed reliever projected to make the Opening Day roster, according to MLBDepthCharts. Other names may emerge, but there is a clear need for southpaw help out of the pen.

With that in mind, the best-case scenario for Santana may be an Oliver Perez-like career renaissance as a reliever.

Perez battled injuries and posted a 6.81 ERA as a starter in 2009 and 2010 combined, before spending the 2011 season pitching at the Double-A level in the Washington Nationals organization.

He popped back up as a reliever for the Seattle Mariners in 2012, though, and over the past two seasons he's posted a 3.16 ERA over 94 appearances with an impressive 10.7 K/9 mark.

If Santana can get his fastball velocity back into the mid-80s consistently, and his changeup/slider combination can be even half of what it once was, there is potential there for him to be a useful reliever with some upside.

Expecting him to bolster the rotation in the second half of the season may be asking too much, though.