06 March 2014

Why Did the Orioles Sign Johan Santana?

Note: Check out our other article on the Santana signing not being a risk free move.

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.


Anonymous said...

This is kind of silly. Santana might have an impact on Gausman's development? Really? Seems like you're just trying to find something to criticize.

Jon Shepherd said...

In the ideal situation where Santana is a useful arm in the rotation, putting Gausman in the pen like they did last year could negatively impact him. He should spend this year working on his pitches, his approach, and improving his stamina. When you get stuck in the pen in the majors, priorities change. Pitchers tend to stick to their two best pitches instead of working on other aspects of their game. Additionally, you prepare differently in a pen role than a rotation role.

That said, I doubt Santana creates that situation where Gausman might be mishandled.

Anonymous said...

What evidence is there that spending time in the pen can hurt a starter? It didn't hurt Santana. In any event, there's almost no chance that Santana is going to force Gausman to the pen if Gausman is pitching well.

Anonymous said...

Who's to say they wouldn't use Santana as a reliever and give Gausman the starting role?
And besides, it's not like getting Gausman some innings as a RP would ruin him. You alluded to Earl Weaver's preference for breaking in young starters as relievers: that could be an interesting post. Go look at the appearances Gausman had last year and compare them with how Weaver used Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor in 1977, for example. Or Storm Davis in 1982.

Jon Shepherd said...

What evidence is there? Not much as these things are hard to measure at times. This is a scouting and coaching discussion. I take their words pretty carefully when I cannot figure out how to properly measure something.

Gausman as starter? No one is suggesting otherwise. We are discussing scenarios. If Santana is pitching well, he will not pitch in relief. If others falter, Gausman might be promoted as a starter.

Weaver? Him breaking in starters as relievers is probably one of the more far fetched myths out there. His MO was more about acquiring overlooked retreads from other organizations and making them work.

I think you think this article is of greater magnitude in perspective than it actually is. It is discussing potential issues. It is not chicken littling it.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I figured that that section would be something that someone would nitpick. That's also why I tried to qualify it as much as possible. Still, I also don't think the Orioles deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their lack of pitching (and really, overall prospect) development these last bunch of years.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think the way they gave Bundy a taste makes sense. I do not agree with how they treated Gausman. They put winning ahead of him developing his pitching. Arguably, they did the same with Matusz and potentially attributed to what wound up happening with his performance.

Jon Shepherd said...

I mean, putting Gausman into the pen turned him into a fastball/changeup pitcher. I am not exactly sure how him scrapping his slider for a few months helped him be a starting pitcher when that specifically is what he needs to work on.

HenryW said...

Re: Gausman and Santana, assuming they both start in the minors, there are three scenarios.

1) They both struggle; Santana is released and bounces around while Gausman continues to work at Norfolk.

2) One does well and gets called up. I think this is most likely, and it will be Gausman, but hey BASEBALL.

3) They both do well enough to get called up by June. I think by that point in the season it's likely someone in the rotation will have an injury or a case of the sucks, and since the O's have two pitchers who do much, much better on an extra day's rest (Gonzales and Chen) you end up starting both Gausman and Santana and getting creative with the roster/Norfolk shuttle.

GordoCooper said...

Nitpick? The title of this post is "Why Did the Orioles Sign Johan Santana?" Sure seems like you were being contrarian and trying to start an argument.

Jon Shepherd said...

It will be difficult for the Orioles to run the rotation to get Chen and Gonzalez regular 5 days of rest. The bullpen is too much relied upon to set up a 6 man rotation.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I don't have a problem with the signing. I stated that above. Gausman being leapfrogged is something that might happen. Were you happy with how the Orioles handled him last season? I wasn't. I'm not sure this move affects that or not, but it's possible. Make sure to read the entire article.

Ehrioles said...

Gotta disagree regarding Weaver breaking in starters as relievers. Wayne Garland, Dennis Martinez, Flanagan, Sammy Stewart, MacGregor and Boddicker all began their ML careers as long relievers, with the occasional spot start. Storm Davis started out in the bullpen in 82. Weaver even said it in "Weaver on Strategy": "The best place for a young pitcher is long relief".

Jon Shepherd said...

Weaver did write that in Weaver on Strategy, but, at best, it was something he did in his last few years managing. He did not do it at any time in his career.

I don't think you can really make that argument with Garland, Stewart, or Boddicker. Weaver really only has the book and a couple examples to point toward.

The others were used as long relievers. Relievers simply are not used that way anymore, which is why it is more of a concern now. When a pitcher throws away a pitch he needs to start in order to be a better reliever, I am not sure how that helps.

Unknown said...

It is certainly true that Kevin Gausman is not likely to be used as a spot starter/long reliever, the role T.J. McFarland more-or-less filled last season. And using Gausman as a short relief pitcher is likely to hurt his chances of him making it as a starter.

It is also certainly true that Earl Weaver did not introduce young pitchers to the major leagues by throwing them into the starting rotation. In the first phase of his career, the only pitchers who broke in as starting pitchers were Jesse Jefferson and (arguably) Mike Flanagan.

Jon Shepherd said...

Weaver and the Orioles primarily took pitchers from other teams, as I mentioned. They did not differ from other teams significantly with how they broke pitchers in. Sparky Anderson actually was a more prolific follower of what Weaver says to do in his book. Anderson did that for years and years before Weaver's book came out.