In the wake of what might be a season-ending injury to starter Kris Medlen, the Braves have decided to give up a draft pick and add Ervin Santana on a one-year $14.1 million deal. It isn't a move that they necessarily wanted to make, but with questions surrounding other key members of their rotation, it is a move that they basically had to make.
Atlanta won 96 games last season, more than another team in the National League except the Cardinals. They won the NL East title by 10 games over the defending-champion Washington Nationals. They feature a talented core of young players that are all currently in or approaching their peak years. Yet for all their talent and 2013 success, they are no lock to repeat as division champions. 2013 was a difficult, injury-filled season for their chief NL East rival up in D.C. but the Nationals are still a very real threat; PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus' projection system had Washington winning the NL East by a comfortable four game margin even before the injury to Medlen. The Braves are in a tight division race and even though they would still be favorites to land a Wild Card spot if they were to miss on the division, there is not much room for error in Atlanta.
If Medlen was the only starter to go down and his injury was less severe, the Braves could easily have turned to a Plan-B options like Freddy Garcia. However, Medlen could need a second Tommy John surgery and miss the entire year, Mike Minor is dealing with a set-back after a very personal operation over the offseason and recent Tommy John surgery-recipient Brandon Beachy was forced to leave his last start early with forearm pain. Giving a handful of starts to Garcia or Gavin Floyd (who is still recovering from- you guessed it- Tommy John surgery), would hardly sink Atlanta's 2014 season, but starting the year with three starters dealing with injuries and nothing more than a few replacement-level options ready to step in would have been assuming an unacceptable amount of risk for a team with realistic playoff aspirations.
The Braves might be a young team with a tremendous amount of talent under team control for the next few years, but they are still a win-now club. As the extensions they signed this offseason begin to pay that talented young core more money, it will only get more difficult for the Braves to supply a strong supporting cast around them. They can make a move like this right now, but such additions may not be possible in a few years. The window to win can close quickly, and Medlen's injury is good reminder of that fact.
By adding Ervin Santana, Atlanta not only addresses the hole left by Medlen, but they also push the less-savory rotation options back down the depth chart. If Minor or Beachy miss time, they will still have to turn to Garcia, but he will not have to become a permanent part of the rotation. Santana will probably not be an upgrade from Medlen- two of the three projection systems featured at Fangraphs slightly favor Medlen- but his production should be very close to what the Braves are losing. Garcia, on the other hand, was projected for a full win less than the most pessimistic projections for either Medlen or Santana.The most important element that Santana brings to the table is his durability. The righty has topped 200 innings in five of his nine seasons in the majors and failed to reach 150, just once since his rookie season. Given all the uncertainty that has popped up in the last week, the ability to write in Santana's name every fifth day is a godsend.
Like the Braves, Santana is doing the best he can in the face of harsh realities. He turned down the qualifying offer the Royals made to find a multi-year deal, boldly announcing that it would take $100 million to secure his services this offseason. He misread the market. Badly. There were no $100 million offers. There were few multi-year offers of any kind. The Minnesota Twins offered him a three-year deal, but he declined it in favor of pursuing a one-year deal that would allow him to take another shot at free agency, presumably hoping to try again without the qualifying offer saddling him with the cost of a draft pick.
As wrote earlier this week, Atlanta is the ideal spot for Santana to rebuild his value. He will be in the spotlight, pitching for a team with a strong chance to win the division. He will work in front of an excellent defense that features one of the game's great run-saving shortstops in Andrelton Simmons and his new home park won't have a negative impact on this numbers. With the payroll restrictions the Braves are facing thanks to their low-paying television deal, it will difficult for them to chance a qualifying offer next year. Even if they do, Santana has probably learned his lesson and if he is doomed to go year-by-year for now, he should happy to do that for a club as young and talented as the Braves.
Both sides of this deal had hoped for better. The Braves believed they could compete with the starting depth they had and hold on to their first round pick. Santana dreamed of fantastic riches and the security that only a massive multi-year deal can bring. Things did not work out. Kris Medlen injured his elbow. The market shunned Santana. Now, both sides need each other. As Liz Lemon might put it, they are each other's settling soul mates. Santana will stabilize the Braves rotation and keep them from depending too much on the Freddy Garcias of the world. The Braves will give him a comfortable home, the chance to turn heads in October and keep him from dying alone if he should slip in the shower. It isn't love, but it will do.