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2014 Free Agent Preview: Ervin Santana

Starting pitcher Ervin Santana offers teams durability but his up-and-down ERA numbers and home run issues make him a risky bet on a long-term deal.

Otto Greule Jr

Ervin Santana made the most of his walk-year after being traded to the Kansas City Royals last off-season, posting a career-best 3.24 ERA over 211 innings. . He also managed the second-lowest walk rate of his career and his best FIP and xFIP numbers since 2008. He finished with a losing record of 9-10, but that mark is more reflected of the Royals inability to score runs behind him than his own work.

Despite his strong 2013 season, the 30-year-old Royals righty remains something of a mystery performance-wise. Since he broke into the majors in 2005, Santana has had four-seasons with better-than-average ERA numbers and five seasons with numbers worse than average. He has posted an ERA above 5.00 three times and an ERA below 3.50 three times. The advanced metrics are more consistently down on him, however. He has just three seasons with a FIP that beats the league and 2013 is the time he has done that in the past four seasons.

The major issue for Santana has been home runs. He has been a fly-ball heavy pitcher for most of his career, so that issue is not surprising. However, he has also pitched in two parks (Kauffman Stadium and Angel Stadium of Anaheim) that both suppress home runs, so his numbers would almost certainly translate terribly to a place like Yankee Stadium or US Cellular. In 2013, he posted the highest ground ball rate of his career, keeping the ball earthbound 46 percent of the time. That change helped him succeed despite a higher-than-normal HR/FB ratio of 12.4 percent. Since 2010, Santana has moved from being a flyball pitcher to a more neutral distribution of batted balls and the sustainability of that new skill is going be a large factor in how teams value him this off-season.

Santana will be 31-years-old at the start of next season, making him one the few pitchers on the market this season who will warrant a long-term contract. While his performance has been erratic, he has been extremely durable. He has topped 200 innings in three of the last four seasons and his 178 inning total in 2012 had more to do with his poor performance than any health concerns. Several teams in need of pitching might be turned off by his prior struggles but durable arms are always in demand and Santana should draw enough interest to justify turning down a qualifying offer.

Top Bidders

The Royals

While the small market Royals are typically long shots to sign any top free agent, their ability to extend Santana a qualifying offer and add draft pick compensation to his price tag gives them an advantage. Santana is probably more vulnerable to the negative effects of having a compensation pick attached to him than any of the other free agents we have previewed to this point. Several of the righty’s potential suitors could bow out of the bidding to avoid losing their draft pick, especially with a strong draft class coming up.

According to Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star, Royals GM Dayton Moore has gone on the record saying that Santana will be given the qualifying and the team hopes that will help them retain him. Dutton cites a team official who brought up the case of Kyle Lohse as an example of what could happen to Santana’s price tag. Loshe was older than Santana as he entered free agency but he also had a more stable track record over the preceding seasons.

The biggest reason to believe that the Royal will land Santana is that the team obviously believes in his abilities, and it very difficult to guess at how many other teams value him as highly. Dayton Moore picked up the former Angel last off-season for pennies on the dollar and got tremendous value out of him. After his performance this past season,  his value to the Royals is probably greater than his value to any other club from the perspective of marketing and fan relations. With a draft pick added to his cost, there is a good chance his best offer will come from his current club.

The Blue Jays

The Blue Jay went big last off-season adding R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera, but they still found themselves at the bottom of the AL East. GM Alex Anthopoulos is determined to add at least one arm to the rotation through free agency or trade, according to John Lott of the National Press and Ervin Santana just might be that arm. The Blue Jays 9th pick in the first round of the 2014 draft is protected so the qualifying offer won’t cost them quite as much as teams like the Giants, who pick later. The Rogers Centre is not the ideal park for Santana, boosting home runs by 4 percent, but most of that effect is due to right-handed hitters and Santana is slightly less home-run happy against righties.

Santana might not be Anthopoulos’ first choice, but his price is likely to be much lower than that of Matt Garza and he provides more long-term value than Hiroki Kuroda or A.J. Burnett. Landing a pitcher they can slot into the rotation for several years is probably going to be important for a Blue Jays club that gave away their top starting pitching prospect, Noah Syndergaard, to bring in Dickey last off-season and will have a long wait before their next high-ceiling arm, Aaron Sanchez, is MLB-ready.

Potential Dark Horse Bidders

The Giants

If the Giants were to sacrifice their first round pick in the 2014 pick, it would be more likely for them to do so to land either Matt Garza or Hiroki Kuroda in my opinion, but Santana could be more than just plan B for Brian Sabean. If there is any potential bidder that doesn’t need to worry about Santana’s home run issues, it is the Giants. AT&TPark is the second-least friendly environment for home runs in the game, just behind another NL West park, the PadresPetco. With obvious holes to fill in the back of the rotation, the Giants need someone who can take the ball every fifth day and Santana could certainly be that player.

What will he get paid?

Santana’s price is harder to predict than almost any other free agent because the market for his services appears to be fairly limited at this point. Teams in obvious need of pitchers like the Yankees, Phillies, Cubs and Angels could get involved in the bidding but there is little to think they will right now. The Angels shipped him away for a very low price before last season and the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies all play in parks that might be disastrous for a player with his batted ball tendencies. Additionally, he is in line to be hit hard by the additional cost of draft pick compensation as Dutton’s source in the Royals organization indicated.

At the very least, Santana will probably have to wait for Matt Garza to land a deal before he get a quality offer. Teams that lose out on Garza are going to turn to someone else and Santana is similar enough to Garza to a viable plan B. He offers durability and it is possible that his increasing ground ball rates will lead teams to downplay his past home run problems some, so the internal scouting among the clubs pursuing him may mean more than his stats alone. However, there is no mistaking the level of risk Santana poises given his erratic past performances. His price will reflect that.

Because of his age and the lack of other options, Santana will probably do better than Kyle Lohse did in his 3-year/$33 million deal last season. A similar deal with an extra year added on is a reasonable starting point. 4-years/$48-$50 million should be obtainable with so few reliable arms competing against him. A five-year deal with a similar annual value is the best case scenario for the pitcher at at this point, it seems unlikely. If he does significantly better this, I would be very surprised. Teams were very reluctant to part with their draft picks last season and Santana is too high-risk to be an exception to that trend this off-season.