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Ervin Santana and the dangers of chasing ERA

Ervin Santana's contract year ERA looks shiny, but a closer look reveals some major question marks. The M's are reportedly interested, but is it a good idea?

Ezra Shaw

What a weird offseason it's been for Ervin Santana. At the onset it seemed certain that he would find a landing spot among many pitching-hungry suitors. So much so that his rumored demand was a whopping $100 million, but Ricky Nolasco went and screwed that up for him by accepting half that to go to Minnesota. When Matt Garza finally inked his deal with Milwaukee for $52 million, Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez have had to significantly reduce their asking price, much like Nelson Cruz did. Now we're days away from spring training, and both are still without homes.

Obligatory grain of salt before we push any further. These are rumors, and they're not particularly great ones. We're all looking for something to cling onto that isn't Nelson Cruz at this point. Seattle's reported interest comes from Darren Wolfson, via 1500 ESPN in Minnesota. The M's are listed with five other teams (Orioles, Yankees, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Indians), but process of elimination starts to raise some eyebrows. The Dodgers rotation is more than full, just finalizing a deal for Paul Maholm. They can't possibly be in on him, except you know, Dodgers. The Orioles "aren't close" with a deal for Santana, according to Jim Bowden. The Blue Jays have long been considered the favorite, but reports are that they haven't accelerated talks lately. The Yankees would be a strange dark horse, and Cleveland hasn't made much effort to bring back Ubaldo Jimenez despite his stellar second half, so the interest in Santana doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Then there's the Mariners. Cruz is still the obvious candidate to be signed, and while their disagreement is apparently over the number of years, it feels like it's only a matter of time. My guess is that they will meet in the middle somewhere in a deal structured similarly to the one Bronson Arroyo just signed in Arizona - a two-year deal with a team option for the third that contains a steep buyout. Both sides are running out of time, and that would probably be an agreeable middle ground - at least for the franchises, not for this website.

Nelson Cruz is going to get way less than what he wants, but it'll still probably be more than I want. Or you want. Cruz would seem to be the last major free agent addition, but now Ervin Santana is being tossed around again in the rumor mill while Ubaldo Jimenez is nowhere to be seen. Could the team add Santana instead of Cruz, or perhaps even both? Probably not.

It's been reasoned that Santana will probably get slightly less than Matt Garza given his draft pick compensation attached, but he'll probably still get a four-year deal that will carry him through age 35. Santana is exactly how you remember him - a pitcher who rarely looks as good as his ERA has been in three of the past four years. Part of that are his three implosion seasons randomly scattered through an otherwise good career (2007, 2009, 2012) and his propensity to give up dingers doesn't help either. Santana's 1.30 HR/9 is 17th highest among all qualified starters since 2009, but he has the lowest ERA and second lowest xFIP of everyone worse than him.

Despite the dinger issues, Santana has done a good job of limiting runs over his career, outperforming his peripherals in three of the last four years.

2010 3.92 4.28 4.31 4.26
2011 3.38 4 3.93 3.95
2012 5.16 5.63 4.48 4.35
2013 3.24 3.93 3.69 3.85

Santana has been fortunate to have good defenders behind him, which helps explain the gaps. In 2013 the Royals were tops in the majors with a 14.1 UZR/150, as well as a +93 DRS. From 2009 to 2012, the Angels were a top 5 defense according to both UZR and DRS. The 2014 Mariners? Not so much. As currently constructed, the Mariners project to be a fairly terrible defensive squad, and signing Nelson Cruz isn't going to improve things. After considering the huge dive in surrounding environment, sticking Santana in front of this defense starts to point the endorsement arrow south. A pitcher who gives up a bunch of bombs and had great defense when he kept the ball in the park? Gulp.

As Jeff wrote a couple months ago, Santana is constantly tweaking his arsenal, and projecting him going forward is a dangerous game. Nobody really knows exactly what kind of pitcher Santana is going to be over the next few years, but it'll probably be some combination of some strikeouts, some walks, a lot of dingers, and some not-large amount of runs. Put him in front of the Mariners defense and some of that some is going to increase...some. Plus, you never know when Santana is going to implode again, and odds are any team that signs him may get one of those years as part of the package.

Santana's Oliver five-year projections project Santana to maintain his perfect health, which is the one thing he's likely to keep, asterisk pitcher. Oliver's got Santana holding on to one more year of sub 4.00 ERA, and then going back up the other end, producing 5.6 WAR total over the next five years. It's worth pointing out that the Oliver WAR is based on FIP, so his actual production could be higher than that, similar to what he's done over some of his recent campaigns. But if you attribute his success to his supporting defensive cast, look out.

Despite the concerns, Santana probably makes the Mariners better in 2014. Even with Logan Morrison tromping around behind him, he's still a likely upgrade over one of Ramirez/Baker/Paxton, and provides stability to a very young back end. If the Mariners are indeed "all-in" then nabbing both Santana and Cruz would be a fairly logical progression towards that, but a semi-irresponsible win-now trade would really still be required to launch the M's into serious contention.

Grabbing Santana and Cruz wouldn't be a particularly smart way to spend their money, but at least they wouldn't be sacrificing any of their current talent to acquire it. It's still a misuse of resources. At some point they're going to max out their payroll for 2014, and tossing on another $20-25 million seems it would cap the amount of moves they could make in 2015 as well. Nabbing Santana might push the Mariners into a 2013 Royals level of contention, but the wild variability of this season's potential success will still fall squarely on the shoulders of the young talent.

I'd pass on Santana like I'd pass on Cruz, but I understand this organization wants to get serious. They aren't having any luck on the trade market, and it's hard to get people to come to Seattle. I get it. It doesn't mean they have to make questionable decisions that have the potential to stick the Mariners in a "not quite" window for the next two years.

I really wish they'd just call Ubaldo Jimenez.