Who Could Improve the Most with Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez?

Let’s acknowledge that we can’t quite figure out Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez. I’ve been trying, off and on, for months. Jimenez is a prize of the free-agent market. As recently as 2012 he was below replacement level. Santana is another prize of the free-agent market. As recently as 2012 he was also below replacement level. These guys were good, then bad, then good, and they stand as fine examples of how domestic veterans aren’t always more predictable than international free agents or minor leaguers. For multiple reasons, it’s not a complete shock that neither of them has signed yet.

But let’s just simplify things with an assumption: let’s assume Santana and Jimenez will be pretty good in 2014. Not aces, but fine starters. I think it’s safe to say that’s how they’re perceived by the market, and it’s not like anyone’s ignoring them because they’re bad. It’s just a matter of finding the right price tags, and it shouldn’t be much longer before we know where they’re both going. They’re sought after, and they represent immediate upgrades. So there’s an important question: who would they upgrade the most?

It’s something we can’t know, but it’s something we can mess around with. For each team, what would be the magnitude of the improvement from signing Santana or Jimenez? Let’s just peg them both for 200 innings and 3 WAR for this coming season. That’s optimistic — a little too optimistic — but I’m feeling optimistic today. We’ll also consider only 2014, because while neither guy will sign for one year, the first year is likely to be their best. Everything else we need for this exercise, we can find on the starting-pitcher depth chart page.

The depth charts are maintained by FanGraphs authors, and they’re fueled by the Steamer projection system. This is what we’re going to run with. For each team’s rotation, I added 200 innings and 3 WAR, to represent Santana/Jimenez. I then subtracted 200 innings from other people. I handled each team on a case-by-case basis, but my rule of thumb was erasing obvious depth guys, and then subtracting innings from the worst remaining starter(s). What I was left with was a new best-guess depth chart for each team, and then I calculated the difference in starting-rotation WAR. This is the improvement.

The exercise requires a handful of assumptions. It requires faith in both the projections and in the FanGraphs author depth charts. But at this point in the offseason we’re not going to be able to do much better. So, here’s a table with all the results. In the first column, the teams. In the second column, the estimated wins added from having acquired Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.

Team +Wins
Reds 2.4
Giants 2.2
Phillies 2.1
Astros 2.1
White Sox 2.1
Indians 2.0
Marlins 1.8
Dodgers 1.7
Brewers 1.7
Nationals 1.6
Royals 1.6
Rays 1.6
Angels 1.6
Diamondbacks 1.6
Mets 1.5
Pirates 1.5
Blue Jays 1.5
Mariners 1.4
Padres 1.4
Braves 1.4
Cardinals 1.3
Cubs 1.3
Twins 1.2
Orioles 1.1
Athletics 1.0
Rangers 0.7
Rockies 0.6
Yankees 0.6
Tigers 0.5
Red Sox 0.0

We range from basically zero added wins to almost two and a half added wins, with some predictable teams toward the bottom. The Red Sox are already overloaded with starters. The Yankees have filled out their rotation, expensively, and the Tigers look outstanding, if thin. The Rockies might look a little out of place, but, I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t make up the projections. You can work your own way through the rest.

What we really care about is the top of the table. And at the very top, we find the Reds. Now, the Reds have a talented starting five, right now. But they have some health questions, and a Tony Cingrani question, and some depth questions. By this methodology, the Reds would stand to gain the most, but we also know the Reds aren’t really in position to make this sort of splash. While they might not be out of money, they probably couldn’t afford some sort of approximation of the Matt Garza contract.

After the Reds, we find the Giants, who have a shaky Ryan Vogelsong and even shakier depth behind him. They don’t seem to be in the market for either starter. The Phillies, Astros, and White Sox could all improve by a couple games, but neither the Astros nor the White Sox look set to contend, and the Phillies really don’t either, even though the front office might disagree. Eventually you land on the Indians. The Indians are looking at a potential gain of a couple wins, and they’d also like to have Jimenez back if that’s at all possible. At issue is the cost, which is the same for everybody. The Indians aren’t big spenders, and recently they’ve talked about how content they are to sort through internal starting options.

The Marlins are unrealistic. You can never count out the Dodgers, but they allowed themselves to be out-bid by the Yankees for Masahiro Tanaka. The Brewers, presumably, are done addressing the rotation with expensive free agents. By this point we’re into the middle tier, where we’re looking at a bunch of teams who could improve by about a win and a half. This is where you find a lot of the rumored suitors, and the interesting Nationals possibility. Perhaps most interestingly, Steamer thinks the Orioles would only gain about a win. While the Orioles lack a big-time ace, they have a number of guys who are more or less adequate.

Given their rotation, and given their position on the win curve, the Reds might benefit the most from signing Santana or Jimenez. They’re also not considered a strong possibility. Among teams who’ve been rumored, the Indians might benefit the most, and I’m guessing that would involve the return of Jimenez. He’d bring them closer to the Tigers, and he’d put them in better wild-card position. Everyone else would benefit a little less, and it’s important to understand that adding a three-win starter wouldn’t automatically mean a three-win upgrade, since most of those innings wouldn’t have gone to replacement-level starters otherwise. That would be another lesson to take out of this exercise.

An acquisition like this is complicated. There are future years to keep in mind, and there’s the reality of draft-pick compensation, and there’s the availability of alternatives. Yet maybe nothing’s more important than the immediate improvement, and certain teams could be improved more than others. If you grant that Santana and Jimenez are good, which, well, baseball’s wacky sometimes.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

If one or both of those guys are signed by a team that has already sacrificed a draft pick in compensation (Rangers, Yankees, Mariners, etc), do they give up another draft pick? How does that work?

10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Which creates this weird situation where the disincentive for signing free agents actually diminishes the more free agents you sign.

10 years ago
Reply to  Llewdor

That’s because it wasn’t actually intended as a disincentive, it was intended to hold down salaries.