Don't Panic Over Bad Breaks For Twins Rotation
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayFirst, let's talk about Santana. Losing your top starter for a chunk of the season hurts, there's no other way to slice it.
It's troubling to imagine where the Twins might have been at the end of May last year without Santana carrying the staff through the first two months, when he logged 77 innings with a 1.75 ERA over 11 starts.
But here's the thing: Minnesota absolutely should NOT have been counting on the same impact in 2018. For a variety of reasons, Santana was all but certain to see regression this year. I've been banging that drum all offseason, and the recently released PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus express similar reservations, forecasting Erv for a 4.76 ERA and 1.41 WHIP.
Even before this injury news came out, expecting the same Ervin Santana from 2017 to return in 2018 was folly. If the Twins held any such expectations (and their lack of urgency to add rotation help would seemingly suggest it), those are now out the door.
Even if the right-hander rejoins the team after a relatively short absence, there's no assurance his surgically repaired middle finger will enable him to throw sliders with the same superior spin and command. Any diminishment for that pitch – easily the most critical in his arsenal – would be very bad news. The Twins have to recognize this risk, and it should theoretically increase their motivation to add another high-caliber starting pitcher.
Also, the timing of Santana's missed time could be viewed as a hidden blessing. Some fans have expressed frustration that the issue wasn't dealt with surgically last fall, but getting it done ahead of spring training should minimize his lost regular-season time, and might even prove helpful in ways for him and the club.
For a veteran player like Santana, spring training doesn't have much value. Obviously he needs to ramp up his pitch counts and prepare for the summer's workload, but as far as actually competing in games? He's just throwing hundreds of meaningless pitches, and taking away innings from younger players who have something to prove, and to gain.
Now, Santana will rehab and ramp up on his own terms. The team's official statement asserts that the hurler's "expected return to Major League game activity is 10-12 weeks" from the date of the surgery. That phrasing is a little odd, but if we take it at face value, then the Twins anticipate having Santana back on the mound starting games before the first of May.
Meanwhile, his innings in spring training can go to others, and Santana's well-traveled arm gets an extra break to open the campaign, potentially keeping him fresh later on.
One final thing to note: Santana has a clause in his contract that would have guaranteed his $14 million salary in 2019 if he reached 200 innings this season. That was a possibility Twins decision-makers needed to account for in their planning, and it might've made them more hesitant to commit payroll for next year. Now, as it it will be virtually impossible for Santana to eclipse the 200 mark, Minnesota has a true team option for 2019, when he'll be 36.
Of course, as mentioned above, the Twins absolutely do need to add at least one more starter to the mix. And sadly, the dream of Darvish has ended. The most coveted player on the free agent market finally found a home on Saturday, agreeing to terms with the Cubs on a six-year deal worth $125 million plus incentives.
In terms of total money, that sure looks like a figure the Twins could have responsibly beat, leading to some familiar lamentations. But when you zoom out, and look at all that Chicago's contract for Darvish entails, you see an arrangement that is far from team-friendly.
The Cubs are now committed to the righty through 2023. He'll be 37 when the pact expires. Although $21 million in annual salary is lower than most expected but it still becomes a hindrance quickly if he underperforms or battles injury. And those are legitimate apprehensions since Darvish is arguably a bigger long-term health risk than many of his peers.
Darvish's huge pitch counts in Japan were a much-discussed topic when he initially came over to the States. As recently as last season, writers in Texas were noticing his workload – especially the heavy slider usage – and wondering if it was cause for concern.
He was healthy and throwing hard last summer, quieting any serious alarm sirens, but Darvish was pretty clearly wearing down by the time the World Series rolled around. And the fact remains: he hasn't reached 190 innings since 2013.
Darvish reportedly has an opt-out built into his deal after just two years, so if he does outperform his pay in 2018 and 2019, there's not really much upside for his team. He'd go back to the market in pursuit of more money and the Twins would be once again in search of a frontline starter to replace him, at the crux of their winning window.
To be clear, I certainly wouldn't have been disappointed by any means if the Twins gave Darvish the same deal he got from Chicago, because in my mind the upfront benefit outweighs the overall downside. But I can't fault them for refusing to match it – and that's IF he'd have signed here on the very same terms, which... probably not.
For all the consternation we're seeing right now, it's important to keep in mind that Minnesota still has plenty of options left on the table for addressing its rotation. They have money to spend and prospects to dangle in trade talks. They won't get a pitcher as good as Darvish, probably, but they can still find a decisive upgrade who gives them more flexibility.
The combination of Darvish signing and finally setting a high-end market baseline, along with spring camps getting underway this week, should put things into motion quickly. These ought to be an interesting few days ahead before team workouts kick off in Ft. Myers on Wednesday.
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