For Braves, qualifying offer to Santana makes sense

Ervin Santana
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Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana had a couple of rough stretches last season when he looked like the furthest thing from an ace, but “Magic” was awfully good when he wasn’t bad. Good enough in the majority of his starts to warrant a $15.3 million qualifying offer in the view of the Braves, who see it as an investment rather than a gamble.

If he accepts the offer they plan to make before Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline for teams to make qualifying offers to their free agents, then he’ll be the Braves’ highest-paid player in 2015, but with a salary not out of line for a proven pitcher of his caliber.

And if he declines the offer as expected in the next week — that’s how long players have to make a decision on qualifying offers — and signs with another team this winter, then the Braves would be assured of a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of the June draft.

Santana missed a couple of potential starts in 2014 after not signing until the middle of spring training and not making his regular-season debut until April 9, but still ranked third among Braves pitchers in innings (196) while going 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA. He was second on the team behind Julio Teheran in strikeouts with 179, a rate of 8.2 per nine innings that was Santana’s best since 2008.

Santana, who’ll be 32 in December, recently told his agent, Jay Alou, that he might accept the qualifying offer if the Braves made it. Alou has told him they should try to get some security with a contract of at least a few years in length, and pointed out to Santana that none of the 22 players who received qualifying offers in the first two years of the system accepted those offers (including Santana after the 2013 season with Kansas City).

Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana

The qualifying offer is the average of the top 125 major league salaries the previous season. The amount was $14.1 million last winter and is up eight percent this year, with the $15.3 million figure high enough that some agents and major league team executives believe at least one or two free agents might accept the offer this time.

By making a qualifying offer to Santana, the Braves’ risk is they’ll have to pay him $15.3 million if he accepts. The reward: they’ll get a compensatory June draft pick between the first and second rounds if Santana declines the qualifying offer and signs with another team.

Braves officials say they can afford to pay him $15.3 million and would not be uncomfortable doing so. Fact is, it probably would cost as much or more per season in a multi-year deal for a comparable free-agent pitcher in today’s market.

The Braves gave up the 26th pick in the June draft as compensation for signing Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract midway through 2014 spring training, a move they made in a desperate situation after elbow injuries to starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Both would be diagnosed with torn ulnar collateral ligaments that required season-ending Tommy John surgery, the second TJ procedure for each.

I’m hearing that the Braves are leaning toward working out a deal to bring back Medlen, who made $5.8 million last season in his second year of arbitration eligibility. He had surgery in March and probably wouldn’t be ready at the beginning of the 2015 season, but he’s a risk worth taking for a couple of reasons, first and foremost being his body of work when healthy, including 25-13 with a 2.47 ERA in 82 games (43 starts) during the 2012-2013 seasons.

Then there’s the intangibles: He’s a guy who has leadership qualities as well as a great sense of humor, someone who keeps things loose in the clubhouse. He was missed in that regard in 2014, when Medlen was around the team only for home games, and even then not in the same capacity as an active player.

Beachy is also another solid clubhouse guy and very good pitcher when healthy. However, his return could be less likely given his health history: He lasted five starts last season before requiring his third elbow surgery in 21 months, including two Tommy John surgeries.

At the time of Santana’s signing in March, left-hander Mike Minor had also been sidelined most of spring training with shoulder tendinitis, and the Braves weren’t certain how much time he’d miss. He spent April on the disabled list, struggled for much of the season to regain his form, and missed his last start due to a recurrence of shoulder soreness (the Braves were out of the wild-card race and said skipping his start was a precautionary measure).

Minor should be fully recovered and presumably return along with rotation certainties Teheran and Alex Wood, leaving two spots to fill and more than 400 innings to replace with the potential departures of free agents Santana and Aaron Harang, who was 12-12 with a 3.57 ERA in his most innings (204 1/3) since 2007. Harang, who’ll be 37 in May, said he’d like to return to Atlanta, but he’ll probably be able to command a two-year contract and it’s unclear if the Braves will try to re-sign him.

The Braves’ best healthy in-house option to fill a rotation spot is a pretty good one: David Hale spent most of his 2014 rookie year in the bullpen, but is 3-1 with a 2.05 ERA in eight major league starts over two seasons.

As for Santana, his 407 innings without incident over the past two seasons alleviated any lingering concerns about the UCL in his pitching elbow that was injured six years ago but healed without surgery. And unlike a year ago, this time around his agent will make sure his actual asking price is known by all interested parties.

Santana started the season by going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in his first six starts, and drawing widespread praise for himself and then-general manager Frank Wren for scrambling to sign him. But when he abruptly hit a wall, going 1-3 with a 6.44 ERA in his next six starts and falling from favor with some of those same folks who had commended his performance and free-spirited demeanor in his first weeks in a Braves uniform.

Just as quickly as things had gone south on Santana, he turned things around, regrouping to go 8-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings over his next 14 starts, and also getting credit from Minor for helping him tweak the grip on a couple of his pitches when the lefty had a start skipped at the beginning of August.

Like a majority of Braves, Santana slumped again late in the season, going 1-3 with a 6. 51 ERA and .299 opponents’ average in his last five starts as the Braves fell out of the playoff picture. The Braves struggled to score runs all season and Santana’s frustrations boiled over in a postgame interview following his next-to-last start. He said it was tough to pitch with the added pressure of knowing there was so little margin for error due to the woeful offense.

The Braves don’t have much room in their current payroll and probably won’t until they move into their new ballpark in 2017. But they have enough room — or the flexibility to create some — to fit Santana in without crippling themselves in other areas.

They could trade a significant salary to free up some payroll, and left fielder Justin Upton’s name is the one that comes up most often, for several reasons: He will make $14.5 million in the final year of his contract and be eligible for free agency next winter, and he has 56 homers during the past two seasons and a career-high 102 RBIs in 2014, so there should be enough demand to assure he brings back at least a couple of good young players or prospects in a trade.

Jason Heyward is also eligible for free agency after the 2015 season and would draw considerable trade interest. He hasn’t developed into the offensive force the Braves envisioned he’d be, but the homegrown talent is a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player and outstanding baserunner, and the Braves think new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer could be the guy to help him become a more consistent hitter and tap into his power potential.

• Let’s close with this one from a really good under-the-radar band called Night Beds.

“RAMONA” by Night Beds

Night Beds

Night Beds

Come on Ramona
It’s getting harder
Hidden and guarded
I know you feel so alone

(Alone)

Come on Ramona
Naked with nothin’
But prayin’ to something
I know you feel so alone

(Alone)

With a
Heart that always fails
My love’s gone off all the rails
Like a ship without a sail
Sinking
Underneath the waves

(Yeah!)

Come on Ramona
Church bells are ringing
Everyone’s singing
Why do we feel so alone?

(Alone)

Come on Ramona
Make it your mantra
(Bleep) what they taught ya
Take back the life that they stole

(Alone)

With a
Heart that always fails
My love’s gone off all the rails
Like a ship without a sail
Drowning
Underneath the waves

With a
Heart that always fails
My love’s gone off all the rails
I know that blindness has a way
To lead us
Back to faith and never
Never
And Never
Never
And Never
Sever

When you’ve gone on
All the dreams in my darkness
Through the orchard
If we just find this love, it’s yours

Gone on
To the dreams in my darkness
Through the orchard
If we just find this love, it’s yours

Gone on
To the dreams in my darkness
Through the orchard
If we just find this love, it’s yours.


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