LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Moving quickly to bolster their suddenly leaky starting rotation, the Braves signed free agent Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract Wednesday.
Santana, 31, was 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 211 innings last season for the Kansas City Royals, and tied for fourth in the American League with 23 quality starts (six innings or more and three earned runs or fewer allowed). The right-hander was mulling offers worth $13 million to $14 million or more from the Orioles and Blue Jays and was within perhaps a day of making a decision this week before the Braves swooped in.
Braves general manager Frank Wren said he contacted Santana’s agent, Jay Alou, soon after Braves planned opening-day starter Kris Medlen left Sunday’s start against the Mets with an elbow-ligament injury that is almost certainly going to require season-ending Tommy John surgery for the second time in Medlen’s career.
The Braves were already talking to Santana before Brandon Beachy left Monday’s start against the Phillies with biceps tightness near his twice-surgically repaired elbow. It only strengthened their resolve to get Santana.
“It just worked out that he had not reached an agreement yet,” Wren said, “and so once we had the injuries, we reached out to his agent…. We’re thrilled to have him, and we feel like he really gives us a big shot in the arm as far as the rotation’s concerned.
“In light of what’s happened over the past few days with our pitching staff, we thought it was incumbent on us to do everything we could to strengthen our starting pitching.”
Santana was in uniform by 8 a.m. Wednesday, and said at a hastily called news conference at Champion Stadium: “I’m very excited to be in this organization. Young talent. It’s going to be a fun season for us.”
He has a mid-90 mph fastball, a good slider and an above-average change-up, and Santana has improved his sinker and induced more ground balls in recent years.
The Braves, defending National League East champions, determined that they had put in too much work assembling what they believe to be another strong playoff-caliber team to see it undermined by a compromised rotation, even if that meant taking the payroll to about $10 million above the planned $100 million limit.
“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. We’re in a winning mode,” Braves CEO Terry McGuirk said. “And we’re standing in this clubhouse right now with a bunch of winners around us. We think that the time is now. We’ve always been willing to add to the payroll and add to the sustance of this club. We have been in a rebuilding mode going with you, going back four or five years. But that youth has all arrived. If you were in our spot, you would do the same thing. It’s the right time.
“Money is not the issue so much as, is it the right time to do it? We want to send a message to the guys in this clubhouse and our fans and our sponsors, to our organization, that we expect to win, we want to win. That was why.”
Even as Wren was making his first contact with Santana’s agent, Braves president John Schuerholz was calling to talk with McGuirk — who also serves as liason of sorts to Braves corporate owner Liberty Media — about the need to go over budget given the circumstances. McGuirk agreed.
“This is an incredible decision by the organization, because this is going to push us well above what we thought our budget would be this year,” Wren said. “But Mr. McGuirk and John jumped in to say this is important for our team, and made a big commitment.”
It was a commitment that was well received in the clubhouse, as well as among fans on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet.
“I thought he was one of the better guys on the market (this winter) to begin with, and to get him on a one-year deal is huge,” Braves catcher Gerald Laird said of Santana, whom he’s faced plenty in the AL. “It just shows you how much confidence Frank has in this team to win games. Unfortunately two guys go down. But to sign a guy like that….
“We’ve got a good ballclub, and to get a guy like this to solidify that top of the rotation – he’s got a track record of being good. I’m excited. We have a first-class organization. They go out there and get a guy like that, and you’re smiling.”
The Braves also sacrifice a first-round draft pick in the upcoming June draft, the No. 26 overall pick, for signing Santana, since he rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Royals after the 2013 season. Wren said that losing that pick was made a little easier for the Braves due to the fact that they gained the No. 32 overall selection in the draft as compensation for losing free agent Brian McCann.
But he indicated the move would’ve been made regardless, because the in the bigger picture they are trying to win at the major league level, and everyone including scouting director Tony DeMacio agreed with the decision to sign Santana because of the sudden need in the rotation.
“Literally the afternoon that Kris Medlen got hurt, I reached out to Jay Alou by text,” Wren said. “And then we started talking (Tuesday) and trying to see if there was a match. When I reached out originally it was because I knew from media reports that he was down the road with some other clubs who had a big head start on us (in negotiations). So we tried to see if there was still a chance for us to get in the mix.
“I think once we started talking, we realized that Ervin was very interested in us as well, that he thought this was a good opportunity for him, and it was a perfect for us for. We’re fortunate that it all fit at the right time. Another day later, we might not have been able to make it happen.”
Medlen is expected to have Tommy John surgery after meeting with Dr. James Andrews in the next few days. The delay in making a final decision is due to the fact that Andrews and other orthopedic surgeons have been in New Orleans for a national convention that runs through the weekend.
Beachy’s issue is not believed to be as serious as Medlen’s, but the Braves can’t be certain of when he’ll be ready.
Starter Mike Minor also might start the season on the disabled list after not being able to throw in January due to Dec. 31 urinary-tract surgery, then developing shoulder soreness in the first week of camp when he tried to do a bit too much too soon. He’s expected to make his Grapefruit League debut in the next week. Gavin Floyd, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is expected to join the rotation in May.
“We don’t have any finality on Brandon, or Kris — we don’t know what’s going to happen with either guy, and we’re still hoping for the best,” Wren said. “But just knowing where we were depth-wise, we felt it was really important (to sign Santana)…. Throughout the winter, we didn’t feel like we were going to be in this (starting pitcher) market, but we felt like Ervin was the No. 1 guy in the market. We always felt that he was the guy that, if we were going to go out there (and sign a frontline pitcher), he was the guy that we would love to have.”
Santana, who has a 105-90 career record and 4.19 ERA in 268 games (265 starts) over nine seasons, said he’s been throwing all spring and is close to being ready to pitch in games, but Wren said they would be careful not to rush him and said he didn’t think Santana would be in the rotation for at least the first week of the regular season.
The Braves planned to have him throw a bullpen side session Wednesday and face hitters in batting practice by the end of the week. He could make his Grapefruit League debut next week.
When asked about coming to the National League for the first time, Santana smiled and said, “I like to hit…. I don’t know the National League, but I will adjust and do my job like I always do and go out every five days and do my work. It’s going to be fun.”
He was signed by the Angels as an amateur free agent in 2000 out of the Dominican Republic. Santana debuted at age 22 in 2005, and was an American League All-Star in 2008 when he went 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 219 innings, finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young Award balloting.
“He’s a great pitcher,” said Jordan Walden, a former Angels teammate. “He’s got good stuff. I was very happy to see that.”
Walden played catch with Santana on Wednesday morning and said he wasn’t surprised how quickly the newcomer seemed comfortable in the Braves clubhouse.
“Awesome guy. I knew he was going to fit in right away over here,” Walden said. “He’s going to make friends with everybody. No problems with him. He’s going to love it here.”
Santana was 96-80 with a 4.33 ERA in eight seasons for the Angels before he was traded to the Royals in October 2012 in exchange for minor league pitcher Brandon Sisk. The Angels also paid $1 million of his $13 million salary as part of that trade.
Before his career-best season with the Royals in 2013, Santana had one of his worst seasons in 2012 with the Angels, going 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA and allowing a league-high 39 home runs in 178 innings.
“He just needed a new start,” Walden said. “He got out of Anaheim last year and he liked it where he was (in Kansas City), and he’s going to love it here. I think he’ll be like he was last year, if not better.”