When Johan Santana's fastball was barely able to crack 80 miles per hour in a workout last week, it seemed unlikely that any of the seven teams in attendance would sign the former Cy Young winner. It only takes one team to take a flier, though, and apparently that team is the Baltimore Orioles.
Baltimore will give Santana a minor league contract that pays him $3 million upon making the big league roster. He could possibly make over $8 million this season if he hits all of his incentives, which are based on games started and days spent on the active roster. He'll also have the ability to opt out of the contract on May 30 if he isn't promoted to the majors by then.
The May 30 opt-out clause makes sense considering Santana has been targeting a June return all along. But even though Santana wasn't expecting to pitch in the majors until then, sitting at 77 and topping out at 81 is about 10 miles per hour off of where he was in 2012, and would seem to indicate there's still a lot of rehab work to be done.
Santana is trying to come back after having left shoulder surgery last April, the second major procedure on his pitching shoulder. After missing two of the past three seasons with shoulder problems, a bullpen role would probably make the most sense for Santana, but the incentives offered in this deal makes it seem like the Orioles still think he could start. Santana will likely stay in extended spring training to continue his rehab work before pitching in any minor league games.
It's a low-risk move for the Orioles — if he can work his velocity up to the mid-80s and he still has his changeup, perhaps he can work his way into the O's bullpen in middle relief or as a lefty specialist. If he can't get his fastball going, can't miss any bats or — even worse — gets hurt again, they can cut bait on the minor league deal with nothing lost.
It is a bit odd, though, that the same Orioles medical staff that nixed deals for Grant Balfour and Tyler Colvin would put the stamp of approval on Santana's shoulder. But the argument could be made that the low-risk nature of the deal — it's totally non-guaranteed, and we're only talking about it costing the O's millions if he makes the roster after two months — eases any concerns or overrides any objections they may have had.