Twins Add Another Perfectly-Serviceable Pitcher in Santana

The 2014 Winter Meetings went on at a fairly furious pace, all things considered. There was of course speculation as to what kind of moves would be done. Jon Lester was expected to sign — he did. There were rumors Matt Kemp could get traded — he was. The Red Sox were thought to be looking to alleviate their crowded outfield — this also happened. But a ton of other things happened. The White Sox tried to get better, the Reds had a mini fire sale, and the Dodgers turned the Winter Meetings into their personal Out of The Park game. I don’t really want to call it a tradeapalooza, but I want to call it a tradepocalypse even less, so I’ll stick with the former. And in the middle of it all was the Twins signing Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million contract. If one were skimming the pages of MLB Trade Rumors looking for the fallout of the Winter Meetings, the Santana headline would most likely cause them to shrug unemphatically. Because Ervin Santana, as a player, is an unemphatic shrug. And he’s probably the best that the Minnesota Twins can do.

Fairly recently, my beloved 15-year-old pickup truck was sent to the big salvage yard in the sky, the victim of an incurable transmission problem. Tired of dealing with chronic repairs, I decided to go a little newer with my next vehicle and purchased a gently-used Chevrolet Cruze. The gas mileage is good, the interior is very clean, and I can link my phone with it via Bluetooth. As I work from home, it will take me to the curling clubs and the grocery store in a serviceable fashion. But it is also extremely unassuming and, frankly, boring. I drive a boring car. As my friend Bill Parker put it, it’s the kind of car the rental place gives you if you say you don’t care what kind of car you get. And while Ervin Santana is a person, and therefore carries more inherent value than an automobile, he’s kind of the Chevy Cruze of pitchers. You could do worse, you could spend more, but Ervin Santana will be fine, thanks. He’s perfectly adequate. He’ll get you from Point A to Point B.

And right now, the Twins could do worse than a rotation of Chevy Cruzes. Last offseason, the Twins went looking for some generic starting pitchers. They ended up with two — Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco. One did a very good job, the other was fairly disastrous. Nobody saw Phil Hughes coming, and though his terrific 2014 season probably won’t be repeated, he should still serve as a solid member of the rotation. Nolasco had his worst season as a full-time starter. This could very well have to do with the fact that he’d secretly been pitching hurt for much of the season. Whoops.

But Nolasco’s signing made sense at the time. He’d been fairly durable and fairly consistent, even if not very exciting. He was the Santana signing of 2013. In fact, Santana and Nolasco are eerily similar. They are nearly the same age, and are separated by one Win Above Replacement for their careers. In Santana, the Twins are hoping to get what they expected to get out of Nolasco the last time around. And if Santana holds up, and especially if Nolasco rebounds a bit as well, it will be more than welcome in the Twin Cities.

This is a graph I made for you. This looks at the average K% and average innings pitched for all the clubs’ pitchers that had at least 10 starts in a season since 2011. This is not some grand discovery by any means. It’s meant to prove a point. That point being that the Twins have had some real starting pitching woes as of late. Look how far away they are from everybody else — tucked away in that sad lower left-hand corner. That’s the corner that makes fans and front offices very upset. Adding Hughes to the mix will help shift that triangle some. Santana should too. But it may come with some bumps in the road.

Last year, Santana ranked 51st of 87 qualified starters in fly ball rate — better than half of the pack. Over the last three years, however, he’s ranked much lower — 39th of 151. Target Field may help to suppress dingers a bit, but that cavernous outfield combined with the Twins’ defense will not be very helpful. Last season, the Twins had between the fourth-worst and sixth-worst outfield defense in the majors, depending on the metric. They had two outfielders with a positive rating. Sam Fuld was one, and he got shipped to the A’s for Tommy Milone. Eduardo Nunez was the other, and he will probably have to play some infield now and again. Josh Willingham is gone, which is good news for the defense, but he’s being replaced by Torii Hunter, which is the opposite of good news for the defense. Add Hunter to a combo of Oswaldo Arcia, Chris Parmelee, Danny Santana and Aaron Hicks and try not to make an audible “ugh” sound. Then, feel bad for Ervin Santana.

Ervin Santana is good in the fact that he’s not Mike Pelfrey, but a rotation of Hughes, Santana, Nolasco, Milone and Kyle Gibson isn’t terribly formidable. But it’s better than it was, and it might teeter on the fulcrum of decency. It does, however, take away chances from some of the Twins’ pitching prospects like Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Jose Berrios. Some of them will get chances because there’s always injury and ineffectiveness holes to fill. I wouldn’t say that Milone or Gibson have guaranteed rotation spots for the whole year. But instead of trying to get by on short-term contracts while rotating in young talent, the Twins are looking to put a semi-permanent, if not still somewhat leaky plug in the sizable hole of their starting-pitching dam.

And that’s OK. Ervin Santana is fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll help the Twins move out of that sad corner and perhaps instill some optimism in the fans who are currently wondering exactly why they are paying for that shiny new stadium. He’ll help get them from Point A (now) to Point B (some futuristic, perhaps mythical time when the Twins are contenders again). Sometimes, a team just needs a couple Chevy Cruzes to get by.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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