Braves’ starting-rotation plans could hinge on Santana

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The Braves have until Monday to decide whether to make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to free agent Ervin Santana, and he would then have a week to decide whether to accept or decline it.

 

The Braves went from 96 wins and a division title in 2013 to 79 wins and out of the playoffs in 2014, but it was through no fault of their starting pitchers.

Despite losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries during spring training and Gavin Floyd to another elbow injury after only nine games, Braves starters finished the season ranked fifth in the majors in ERA (3.42), second in innings (1,014 1/3) and fourth in strikeouts (868).

All-Star Julio Teheran and ascendant left-hander Alex Wood will return along with lefty Mike Minor, barring any unexpected developments. That would leave one or two spots open, depending on what happens with free agents Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who met – or surpassed, in Harang’s case – most expectations after being emergency signees during spring training.

The Braves have until Monday to decide whether to make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to free agent Ervin Santana, and he would then have a week to decide whether to accept or decline it.

The Braves have until Monday to decide whether to make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to free agent Ervin Santana, and he would then have a week to decide whether to accept or decline it.

The Braves haven’t revealed their intentions with either, but are expected to make a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Santana before Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline for teams to extend those uniform one-year offers to their top free agents. Making the offer guarantees a compensatory draft pick if a player declines and signs with another team.

Santana started the season by going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in his first six starts, then went 1-3 with a 6.44 ERA in his next six starts. He regrouped and was 8-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings over his next 14 starts, then ended the season going 1-3 with a 6. 51 ERA and .299 opponents’ average in his last five starts for the skidding Braves.

The Braves struggled to score runs all season and Santana’s frustrations boiled over in an interview after his next-to-last start, when he said it was tough to pitch with the added pressure of knowing there was little margin for error due to the woeful offense.

If the payroll-conscious Braves splurge to keep Santana, they could have a formidable rotation without further spending by filling it out with David Hale, who spent most of his 2014 rookie season in the bullpen but is 3-1 with a 2.05 ERA in eight major league starts.

If the Braves don’t retain Santana, they might need to pursue another top-of-the-rotation type starter, in which case the trade market a more likely avenue than an inflated free-agent market. Losing Santana might increase the appeal of re-signing Harang, 36, who provided valuable experience and leadership for a youthful pitching staff while going 12-12 with a 3.57 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings. He has said he’d like to return to Atlanta.

Despite his age, Harang could command significantly more than last year’s one-year, $1 million contract — he made $2 million including incentives — because he rebounded with such a strong and healthy season following his 5-12 record and 5.40 ERA in 2013.

The Braves have cost certainty in their three incumbent trio of Teheran, who will make $1 million in 2015 in the second season of a six-year, $32.4 million contract; Wood, who’ll likely make less than $600,000; and Minor, who can expect about $5 million in his second year of arbitration.

Teheran was 14-13 with a 2.89 ERA and team-highs of 186 strikeouts and 221 innings. He was sixth among NL starters in opponents’ average (.232) and fifth in opponents’ on-base percentage (.279), a few spots ahead of the Giants ace Madison Bumgarner (.281) in the latter category.

Despite pitching far more innings than he’d pitched in any previous season, Teheran maintained a .210 opponents’ average after the All-Star break.

Wood bounced between starting and relieving roles during his first two season, but safe to say those days are over now and the former University of Georgia standout figures as a major part of the Braves’ rotation going forward.

Wood went 8-10 in 24 starts in 2014 despite a stingy 2.59 ERA, as the Braves more often than not scored scored one or no runs while he was in. His 3.15 support runs per nine innings pitched was the third-lowest among NL qualifiers. He went 6-5 with a 2.43 ERA and .219 opponents’ average in 17 starts after moving back to the rotation, with 107 strikeouts and 30 walks in 111 1/3 innings

 

After bouncing between starting and relieving roles for much of his first two seasons in the majors, Alex Wood figures prominently in the starting rotation going forward.

After bouncing between starting and relieving roles for much of his first two seasons in the majors, Alex Wood figures prominently in the starting rotation going forward.

In his final 11 starts, when some wondered if he would fade from fatigue, Wood went 4-3 with a 1.92 ERA, .207 opponents’ average and 76 strikeouts in 75 innings. Wood is 11-12 with a 2.84 ERA in 35 starts over two years – a losing record despite a sub-3.00 ERA and .302 opponents’ OBP.

Minor’s season was a long struggle (6-12, 4.77 ERA) that ended the way it started, with him sidelined by shoulder inflammation. He had urinary-tract surgery on Dec. 31, couldn’t work out in January, then developed shoulder tendinitis in the first week of spring training after trying to do too much too soon following the  layoff.

The lefty was also bothered by the shoulder periodically during the season and was never as good for any significant stretch as he was in 2013, when Minor was arguably the Braves’ best pitcher, going 13-9 with a 3.21 ERA and 181 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings.

Particularly odd in 2014: Minor allowed an NL-worst .357 average by left-handed hitters — more than 90 points higher than he allowed against right-handers. This after he allowed a .240 average by lefties and .243 by righties over the previous three seasons.

The Braves had him skip his last start to rest his shoulder, which they believe will be fine after a regular offseason and his normal throwing program heading into camp.

For added depth, the Braves seem more likely to bring back Medlen than Beachy. Each is coming off a second Tommy John surgery and might not return before May. Even then, given the modest success rate for pitchers coming back at full strength after a second TJ surgery, the Braves wouldn’t be able to count on either or know a precise return date.

As a second-year arbitration player in 2014, Medlen’s $5.6 million salary was four times that of first-year arb man Beachy.  It’s unclear what the Braves might be willing to pay either to return, and Beachy’s return could be less likely given his health history: He lasted five starts last season before requiring his third surgery in 21 months, including two Tommy John procedures.

Medlen’s impressive work when healthy, including 25-13 with a 2.47 ERA in 82 games (43 starts) during the 2012-2013 seasons, makes him appealing, particularly if the sides could work out a contract without arbitration.

Floyd pitched extremely well after recovering from 2013 Tommy John surgery and coming off the disabled list early in 2014. But he lasted only nine starts (2-2, 2.65 ERA) before sustaining a rare injury for a pitcher — he fractured the elbow while throwing a curveball in a game at Washington. He could be ready in the spring, but at age 32 and coming off two major elbow surgeries in two years, it seems doubtful the Braves would roll the dice expecting a full recovery.

What the Braves have – and need — to spend on starting pitching could be largely determined by whether they make a qualifying offer Monday to Santana, who would have one week to accept or decline it. It seems reasonably safe to assume he wouldn’t accept it because he’d get multi-year offers from other teams.

All 22 free agents who got qualifying offers in the first two years of this system declined those offers, including Santana a year ago when he was a Royals free agent. The offers were $14.1 million last year and are up eight percent this year, with the $15.3 million high enough that some players’ agents and major league team executives believe at least one or two free agents might accept qualifying offers this time.

Santana, who’ll be 32 in December, declined the Royals’ qualifying offer after going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 211 innings. Because of his high initial asking price – reportedly about $100 million for five years – and the draft pick it would cost to sign him, Santana didn’t get offers he expected and ended up signing a $14.1 million deal with the Braves.

Now he’s further alleviated any remaining concerns about the ulnar collateral ligament inh is pitching elbow that was injured six years ago, and probably has a better grasp of what a reasonable asking price is and would thus not scare away teams like he did a year ago when word spread about how much he was asking for.

He missed a couple of potential starts in 2014 because of the delay in signing – he didn’t make his debut until April 9 – but Santana still ranked third among Braves pitchers in innings with 196. He went 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA and was second behind Teheran on the team in strikeouts with 179, a rate of 8.2 per nine innings that was Santana’s best since 2008.

If the Braves make a qualifying offer to Santana, as expected, the risk is that he’ll accept and they’d have to pay him $15.3 million. But it would probably cost as  much or more per season in a multi-year deal for any comparable free-agent pitcher on the market. The Braves have enough payroll flexibility to fit Santana in next year’s budget without crippling themselves in other areas, particularly if they trade away at least one significant salary, which I think they will do. But again, I think it’s unlikely he accepts their one-year qualifying offer.

With the exception of one-year deals for the likes of Santana and Harang last winter, the Braves have avoided the high costs of the free-agent pitching market since giving Derek Lowe a four-year, $60 million deal and ultimately paying $10 million of the final-year salary of that contract after trading him to Cleveland. Lowe went 40-39 with a 4.57 ERA in three years with the Braves, who paid him $55 million for that work.

The only large free-agent contract for the Braves since then was center fielder B.J. Upton’s five-year, $75.25 million deal, which has been an unmitigated disaster through two seasons.

• We’ll close with some great ’80s rock from The Plimsouls, which you can hear by clicking here.

“EVERYWHERE AT ONCE” by The Plimsouls

The Plimsouls

The Plimsouls

The band began to play
So we started running
From across the way
You could hear the drumming

Thunder struck a chord up in the sky
Lightning flashed, I looked you right in the eye

You’re the one I want
The rain started falling
So we took a chance
While the music was calling

I ran out of the way
You can hear the nightbells toll
Under the bridge
Where the river rolls

Everywhere at once
We’ll throw it wide open
And you can’t look back
Till the chains have been broken

Thunder struck a chord up in the sky
Lightning flashed, I looked you right in the eye

Whoa-oa-oa-oa
Everywhere at once
The rain kept on falling
So we took a chance
While the music was calling

I ran out of the way
You can hear the nightbells toll
Under the bridge
Where the river rolls

Everywhere at once
We’ll throw it wide open
And you can’t look back
Till the chains have been broken

Everywhere at once
Everywhere at once
Everywhere at once
Everywhere at once….


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