Ervin Santana, who made his major-league debut for a 2005 Angels squad that also included Steve Finley (who made his debut in 1989) and a 32-year-old Bartolo Colón, last week signed a minor-league contract with the White Sox that’ll be worth $4.3 million if he makes the big-league roster out of spring training.
Santana has spent much of the last decade and a half being a perfectly acceptable starting pitcher for four big-league teams (his mean annual WAR is 2.0 on the dot), and much of the last twelve months being a hurt and bad for the Twins. Last year, an injury to his throwing hand kept him out of the rotation until late July; he would head back to the injured list in mid August and finish his season there. In between, he pitched poorly. He posted a 7.94 FIP. His 8.03 ERA was third-worst among starters with as many innings (24.2), behind only the Orioles’ Chris Tillman (who checked in with a 10.46 ERA) and new rotation-mate Carson Fulmer (8.07). Unfortunately for the White Sox, their rotation doesn’t get much better after Fulmer. Our depth charts have the White Sox dead last in projected rotation WAR for 2019:
|Carlos Rodon||169||8.1||3.9||1.3||.306||71.0 %||4.68||4.72||1.4|
|Reynaldo Lopez||175||7.8||3.7||1.6||.296||70.8 %||5.02||5.13||0.9|
|Ivan Nova||150||6.4||2.2||1.6||.311||69.2 %||5.01||4.91||0.8|
|Lucas Giolito||136||7.2||4.4||1.5||.305||69.3 %||5.32||5.32||0.2|
|Ervin Santana||104||6.1||3||1.7||.303||68.7 %||5.44||5.43||0.2|
|Dylan Covey||75||6.8||3.9||1.2||.314||70.1 %||4.91||4.87||0.4|
|Carson Fulmer||56||7.3||5.4||1.6||.302||69.5 %||5.74||5.82||-0.2|
|Dane Dunning||37||7.9||3.5||1.2||.307||71.2 %||4.47||4.51||0.4|
|Dylan Cease||28||9.1||5||1.3||.305||72.2 %||4.68||4.77||0.2|
|Jordan Stephens||9||7.2||4||1.7||.300||69.5 %||5.43||5.49||0|
|Kodi Medeiros||9||7.7||4.9||1.3||.302||71.7 %||4.82||5.12||0|
I know White Sox fans are still disappointed the team failed to secure Manny Machado for its own sake, and they should be, but (and I suspect this will come as little consolation) they should also be upset for its downstream effects on the rotation. Had Machado signed, it might have made sense for the White Sox to crack the piggybank wide open and shell out for say Dallas Keuchel or Gio Gonzalez as well, just to really put a scare into Cleveland and capitalize on a window.
At the very least, they might have gone after Clay Buchholz or Edwin Jackson, or even matched the two-year, $30 million deal the Rays gave Charlie Morton earlier in the offseason, or the one the Padres gave Garrett Richards. Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease will probably be decent pitchers at some point, to be sure, but Kopech is out for 2019 with a UCL injury, and Cease is just one arm. The rotation could have used the help.
But now Machado is a Padre and the White Sox are projected to be all-around bad next year. There’s probably not much of an argument for signing Keuchel or Gonzalez without concurrent improvements on the offensive side, so that leaves Santana as probably the best option available who doesn’t require any real money to bring on board, given his 2018. If you’ve decided you’re not going to spend much to improve your club outside of one player (and the friends and family that might sway him to sign), a pitcher like Santana is about as good as you’re going to get, given his long track record of reasonable success. And the White Sox, without Machado in hand, appear to have decided exactly that. So here we find ourselves.
The question for Santana is whether the hand injury that cratered his 2018 is something that will linger into 2019 or not. What the injury appears to have done, at least in the short term, is drop his velocity off a cliff. Santana himself attributed the loss to his finger injury making the baseball difficult to grip when he spoke to James Fegan of The Athletic. (He also noted he’s a bit behind his usual offseason schedule, but is pain free.) His average fastball velocity fell to 89 in 2018 after sitting at 93 for much of his career. His changeup fell to 83 from 86; his slider to 82 from 84.
I don’t think the story of his 2018 needs to be much more complicated than that: he hurt his hand, which caused him to not throw that many innings, and to throw ineffectively when he did pitch. If his hand is fully recovered in 2019, then the 0.2 projection may be too low–he hasn’t posted a full season that poor (besides 2018) since 2012. If his hand isn’t fully recovered, 0.2 WAR is probably too high, and he might not even make the White Sox roster. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.