On Tuesday, the Orioles agreed to a minor league deal with Johan Santana. Santana, who turns 35 in a week, would make $3 million if he's added to the 40-man roster. He has a chance to make another $5.05 million in incentives. He also has an opt-out date of May 30 if he is not yet added to the major league roster, which goes along with Dan Duquette's June 1 target date for a decision.
It's hard to find much to dislike about the signing. Santana has pitched very well in the past, and if he's able to overcome his shoulder problems, he could give the O's another decent option to improve the team's pitching depth. Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez are the O's top two starters, so a healthy Santana could eventually compete with Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris for innings. Kevin Gausman could also earn starts down the road, depending on any injuries or how well the back-end of the rotation performs, but Santana would likely get the first chance, assuming he's ready.
Santana is not guaranteed to make that $3 million, as some fans initially suspected. If he is never added to the 40-man roster, he doesn't get that money. He is essentially a lottery ticket, and the Orioles have a couple months to decide if they want to promote him. Santana has time to work his way back in the minors to strengthen his shoulder and potentially return to form. But the odds are stacked against him. Santana has had two major shoulder surgeries since 2010, and he's recently had trouble throwing above 80 mph. That may have been fine for someone like Jamie Moyer to get away with. But Johan Santana is not Jamie Moyer.
Signing Santana doesn't make the O's any worse, but there isn't necessarily much upside with the move. Even if Santana is able to pitch in the rotation, he hasn't pitched all that well since 2010. In 2012, when he threw 117 innings, he posted an 8.54 K/9, his highest since 2007, but he also walked 3 batters per nine (his highest mark since 2002) and allowed 1.31 home runs per nine (his highest since 2007). His numbers weren't quite as bad as his 4.85 ERA indicated, but he certainly wasn't frontline starter material. The O's have a few of those guys already.
Also, likely because of the combination of injury and age, Santana's pitching velocity has consistently been dropping each season on all of his pitches.
|Johan Santana's declining velocity|
Santana has been losing about 1 mph on all of his pitches each season -- sometimes more. That has mainly affected the movement on his four-seam fastball, which he throws nearly half the time. He also adjusted in 2010 and 2012 by throwing more sliders and fewer change-ups, despite his slider losing a bit more movement than his change-up. Maybe he wasn't as comfortable throwing as many change-ups as before since he was offering them up at 77 mph. With that level of velocity, Santana will need pinpoint control on all of his pitches.
It's also worth wondering how the Santana signing affects Gausman. Bringing in Jimenez basically forced Gausman to Norfolk, which is fine, because Gausman could certainly use those Triple-A starts to work on improving his slider and his overall command. But if the O's turn to Santana later in the season instead of Gausman, could that stunt his growth? He could make a case for being the O's fifth starter right now, and he could be the shot in the arm the O's need in June or July. Would the O's toy with the idea of moving him to the bullpen again to get him to the majors? I'd say no, but they did use him out of the bullpen last year occasionally in one- or two-inning appearances. That's not really the best use of his services, and it's probably not the best for his development. Granted, Santana pitching well would be a nice problem to have, and Gausman could eventually be promoted and used out of the bullpen even if Santana never pitches for the Orioles. But Gausman's progress is more important to the Orioles than Santana's. This is probably a small gripe, though, and hopefully Gausman's reliever days are over. And perhaps my concerns are more with how -- and why -- the O's jerked Gausman around last year instead of just leaving him alone and letting him start. It's not like the Orioles employed the Earl Weaver long reliever model with Gausman, either.
It'll be interesting to see if Santana can indeed work his way back and pitch in an Orioles uniform this season. It's a long shot, and the O's may not need him anyway. But if he can come back as just a competent starting pitcher, then the signing was worth it.