21 March 2014

With No Ervin Santana on the Way, O's Rotation Likely Set

Last week, Ervin Santana finally decided which team he wanted to play for and agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Braves for one year and $14.1 million. That's equal to the qualifying offer amount for 2013 that he and 12 other free agents turned down in November. With Santana now under contract, two of the 13 who rejected qualifying offers still remain unsigned: Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. And two of those 13, Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, joined the Orioles.

The race for Santana seemed to be down to the Blue Jays and Orioles. Santana had apparently turned down a three-year offer from the Twins and was seeking a one-year deal. The O's and Blue Jays both had one-year deals on the table (the O's may have offered a three-year deal as well, though that was disputed), but the Braves entered the fold when starter Kris Medlen injured his elbow. The Orioles' and Blue Jays' offers were both in the $13-$14 million range, but Santana opted for Atlanta's offer instead. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos suggested that Santana picked the Braves because he wanted to pitch in the National League, and he probably did. That strategy makes sense for a pitcher who wants to put together a fantastic 2014 season that he hopes will land him a lucrative multiyear deal.

So Ervin Santana will not be joining the Orioles. This is what the O's rotation will likely be on opening day: Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. Before the O's signed Jimenez, Kevin Gausman arguably had the upper hand in the fifth starter race. But he will likely start the season in Norfolk, waiting for the Orioles' call if/when needed.

Chris "Ace" Tillman (photo: Keith Allison)
The 2013 Orioles used 14 different starting pitchers. Gone are Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman, Freddy Garcia, Jake Arrieta, and Jair Jurrjens (who combined for 304.1 innings pitched). Zach Britton will start the season in the bullpen, unless he's traded. Josh Stinson will also likely be in the bullpen. Steve Johnson (one) and T.J. McFarland (three) have options left and could both start the season in Norfolk. And Johan Santana will try to regain strength in his shoulder, hoping to be ready by the end of May.

Losing Feldman hurts a bit because he would have helped the back-end of the rotation (presumably bumping Norris). A healthy Hammel could have been nice to have as well; he was solid in 2012 but less so in 2013, and he battled injuries in both seasons. But the Orioles do have a better collection of starting rotation options overall than they did in 2013. The likely starting five listed above is flanked by Gausman, Britton, Johnson, McFarland, Stinson, and Johan Santana in some order. Other names to include are Suk-min Yoon; Brian Matusz the starter; prospects Mike Wright, Tim Berry, and Eduardo Rodriguez; and Dylan Bundy, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. So the O's should not find themselves in the position of relying on the likes of Garcia and Jurrjens for innings.

As Nate wrote in January, Ervin Santana could have helped the Orioles, but maybe only by one additional win. But the Orioles' situation did change between now and then. They signed Jimenez and Cruz, meaning they will forfeit their first- and second-round picks in the upcoming MLB draft. So signing Santana last week would have meant losing a third-round pick, but since the O's did have an offer on the table, they seemingly had no issue with doing so. A rotation of Tillman, Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Chen, and Gonzalez (with Norris traded or moved to the bullpen) does look better, but not as much as you'd think. Here are the career numbers and 2014 Steamer and ZiPS projections for Santana, Norris, and Gonzalez in 2013:

Ervin Santana career: 7.09 K/9, 2.81 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 39.8 GB%, 11.0% HR/FB, 4.19 ERA
... 3 fWAR in 2013, Steamer projects 2 fWAR in 2014, ZiPS projects 1.7 fWAR in 2014

Miguel Gonzalez career: 6.41 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, 1.20 HR/9, 37.4 GB%, 10.8 HR/FB, 3.58 ERA
... 1.7 fWAR in 2013, Steamer projects 1 fWAR in 2014, ZiPS projects 1.5 fWAR in 2014
(Gonzalez much smaller career sample size.)

Bud Norris career: 8.51 K/9, 3.71 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9, 40.2 GB%, 10.8 HR/FB, 4.36 ERA
... 2.7 fWAR in 2013, Steamer projects 0.9 fWAR in 2014, ZiPS projects 2.4 fWAR in 2014

Steamer and ZiPS differ the most on Norris in 2014. Gonzalez has only thrown 276.2 innings in the majors and has outpitched his peripherals (low strikeout rate, BABIP, and groundball percentage) so far.
Gausman in glasses (photo: Eduardo Encina)

Santana is the better pitcher of the three, but it's not an enormous difference. If not for an injury or two to Atlanta's starting rotation, Santana could have decided to pitch in Baltimore in 2014, making the O's marginally better. But it's not like the addition of Santana would have transformed the O's rotation into a superior one. The current rotation, while not great, does look OK, and it will look even better if things start to click for Gausman in Norfolk and then eventually in the majors. Of the O's rotation depth, he's the starter with the most upside right now.

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