For fans of the Minnesota Twins, the timing of the announcement that Ervin Santana could miss the first month of the season was a little peculiar. We’re a week away from Twins pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, and Santana needed surgery to fix a previous injury?
You can question the timing of the operation if you want to. It’s unpleasant for fans to get bad news at a time that’s supposed to be reserved for unbridled optimism. It hurts the Twins a little bit. (Although, we’re probably talking about 1 or 2 wins, rather than 10 or 15 or something crazy like that.)
There’s one person that it hurts more than anyone, though, and that’s Ervin Santana himself.
Santana, 35, is pitching in what could be the final year of the contract that he signed in Minnesota when Terry Ryan was running the show. He’ll earn $13.5 million this year, and could have guaranteed himself $14 million for next year, if he cleared 200 innings in the Majors this season, and passed a physical exam at the end of the year.
Now, it seems the calendar is stacked against Santana reaching that mark, which would mean that his 2019 option wouldn’t automatically vest. Instead, it’ll be a club option, and GM Thad Levine and CBO Derek Falvey will get to choose if they want to pay Santana $14 million in 2019 or let him walk for nothing.
At that point, if his option is declined, Santana and his representatives will be walking into a star-studded free agent class, one year after the chilliest winter in the baseball labor market since the strike in 1994.
Why did it take so long to address an injury that had previously affected Santana? The Twins likely thought that they could address the pain in his right (pitching) middle finger without surgery. Per a news release from the Twins, Santana had dealt with pain in his finger in the past, and at the end of the season he had an MRI and an x-ray taken. They deemed that there wasn’t a tendon injury, and so he got an injection to try to fix the issue.
Apparently the shot plus some rest wasn’t enough to fix the problem. Santana started dialing it up again last year, in preparation for spring training, and again felt the pain. So now he’s having surgery and will begin as early as this week. The Twins reported that the injury is a “result of repeated cumulative stress from pitching, not one acute event,” and that he didn’t feel the pain again until last week.
Let’s also say this about Santana’s vesting option for 2019: He was no lock to get there even before the discomfort resurfaced last week. Minnesota’s ace from last year has pitched 13 seasons in the big leagues, 12 of those for American League clubs. He’s logged 200 or more innings in six of those 12 seasons in the A.L., and he missed the cut by 4 innings in his one year with the Braves (2014). He pitched 211 good innings last year with the Twins; another 181 innings the year before that as a dependable rotation anchor; and he pitched just 108 frames in his first season in Minnesota because half of his year was wiped out by a drug suspension.
All told, after serving that 80-game PED suspension in 2015, Santana has pitched 500 2/3 innings for the Twins with a 3.47 ERA, a 19.2% strikeout rate and a 7.2% walk rate. He’s been a good and dependable pitcher for Minnesota, and he made the all-star team last year after a stellar start to the season.
If the Twins feel that they need to further address the top of their rotation — which they did, in my opinion, even before Santana’s surgery — then there are plenty of good pitchers out there. Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are still available on the free agent market. And signing Darvish wouldn’t even require draft pick comensation.
It’ll be expensive but it might be a necessary upgrade if this year’s Twins team intends to compete for a World Series. If the Twins can take last year’s ace and make Santana more of a mid-rotation starter they’ll set themselves up well for postseason success.