The Atlanta Braves have made a necessary signing to improve the depth of their starting rotation, inking former Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract. The signing of the 31-year old Santana appeared to be necessary after both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy left Spring Training starts early this week, with Medlen likely needing a second Tommy John surgery that would sideline him for all of 2014 and a nice chunk of 2015 as well. Atlanta's ace, Mike Minor, has also struggled with injuries this spring, and is a question mark for Opening Day.
After putting together a horrible 2012 season with the Angels, Santana rebounded nicely in 2013 with the Royals, pitching to a 3.24 ERA in 211 innings, bolstered by a career-best 46.2% ground ball rate and a 3.16 strikeout to walk ratio, the second-best mark of his career.
Considering that Santana was shooting for a multiple-year, nine-figure contract this offseason, the Braves giving him the equivalent of a one-year qualifying offer doesn't look like a bad deal for them, especially given the recent issues their rotation has run into. The Braves have given themselves a brief two-year window of competition before needing to retool at several positions, and Santana puts them in a better position to compete this year than the team would have been in if their Opening Day rotation behind Julio Teheran consisted of Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia, and David Hale
The Braves just need to keep their heads above water over their first 28 games, which features six games against each of the Mets and Marlins, four against the Phillies, and three against the Brewers. Even if Atlanta struggles against the Nationals in the six games they play against their fellow NL East titan, that weak schedule could help the Braves to a .500 mark or better during the season's first week while Minor and Beachy get healthy. And frankly, a rotation of Santana-Teheran-Minor-Beachy-Wood is pretty damn formidable, probably better than the one with Medlen replacing Santana. Throw in a rehabbing Gavin Floyd, which could allow a shaky Beachy or a young Wood to shift to the bullpen, and Atlanta looks to be in pretty good shape after watching Santana's market bottom out.
Who's the big loser in Santana's signing with the Braves? It's not anyone in the NL East, it's not Santana's former team, it's the Blue Jays. Toronto did nothing to fix a rotation that has a worse ERA than every team in baseball aside from the Twins last year, and their only hope for improvement is praying for the health of every starter not named R.A. Dickey or Mark Buehrle. Toronto saw Ubaldo Jimenez sign a bargain basement deal with the division rival Orioles, and then let Santana's market crater to the point where he was happy with a one-year deal, all while they put undue faith in the chronically-injured Brandon Morrow and the chronically-disappointing J.A. Happ.
Atlanta will lose their first round pick for signing Santana, the 26th overall pick. The Royals gain a compensation pick for the signing, which will be the 28th overall selection. But it's not a huge deal for the Braves – after Brian McCann signed with the Yankees, the Braves got a compensation pick of their own, the 32nd overall pick. It's really just a slight shift back, and the Braves lose something they never really had in the extra pick.
All in all, signing Santana might not be a huge difference maker for the Braves – after all, they do have a lot of rotation depth, it's just all shaky right now. Yet, if Beachy's biceps soreness is a factor well into the season, Minor's shoulder soreness starts costing him starts, and Floyd's recovery from Tommy John takes longer than expected, Ervin Santana could be the main reason that the Braves are still a factor in the playoff picture.