Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays went out and made a big splash on Thursday, signing an ace pitcher in the wake of the bad news of Michael Saunders‘ knee injury.
The “ace” in question is four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, the formerly dominant lefty who is, unfortunately, nine years removed from his last Cy Young award (2006), six years removed from his most recent All-Star appearance and five years removed from his last full season in the majors. His last time pitching in the bigs was in 2012 when he threw a no-hitter among 21 starts for the New York Mets.
Santana’s stellar career was disrupted by a couple of shoulder surgeries to repair a damaged left shoulder capsule and his most recent comeback in 2014 was derailed by a torn Achilles tendon while on a minor league deal with the Orioles. The 36 year old is trying to come back with the Jays on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.
Unfortunately, we shouldn’t dwell on how good Santana was. And boy, was he good. He’s pitched in 12 major league seasons between 2000 and 2012 (he missed all of 2011). In his first two seasons, he simply wasn’t good at the ages of 21 and 22, compiling a WAR of 0.3 (at both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference) over about 130 innings between those two seasons. After that, however, look out. Despite just 108 1/3 innings in 2002, he had a rWAR of 2.6 and fWAR of 3.6 and it just goes up from there. In his first Cy Young season of 2004, he threw 228 innings with an ERA of 2.61 and 7.5 fWAR (8.6 if you go by BR’s calcuations). He had WARs of over seven in his next two years, with a fall off to human but still well above average standards after that. According to Baseball Reference, he’s been worth 50.7 WAR over his career and that number is a little more tame if you look at Fangraphs where it’s calculated as 47.3.
Will a 36 year old pitcher who’s missed three of the past four seasons due to injuries return to be his former self? Well, no. I think that the best that we can look for is for him to be what he was when he made his first comeback with the New York Mets in 2012. In 117 innings, he had an ERA of 4.85, a FIP of 4.09 and xFIP of 4.02 with a 22.2% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate. The concerning stat from that year was a 33.1% ground ball rate although he had a tremendously high 19.3% Infield-Fly-Ball rate which probably helped him have a somewhat average 11.7% HR/FB rate.
Had he declined all that much in 2012? His fastball was clearly down in velocity. His fastball, thrown 52.6% of the time was averaging 88.4 mph and his slider, thrown 20.4% of the time was coming in at 80.3 mph. This is down a little over three mph from his earliest PITCHf/x readings in 2007 where his heater averaged 91.8 mph and down over 1 mph from his 2010 season. Still, his 2010 season with the Mets was wroth 4.6 rWAR or 3.4 fWAR (depending on which you prefer).
The 2012 season isn’t bad but would that be better than what the Jays would get from Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez or Marco Estrada? Norris is projected by ZiPS to throw 132 1/3 innings and post a zWAR (ZiPS WAR, I guess) of 1.3 while Estrada is prjected to throw 142 innings with a zWAR of 1.2. Aaron Sanchez projects to 127 2/3 innings with a zWAR of 0.9. For the record, Liam Hendriks is projected to have the same zWAR as Sanchez but in about 40 more projected innings.
Obviously, this signing costs the Blue Jays nothing. Santana could come back and have a season like he did in 2012 and give the Jays 120 solid innings. If he does that, he could very well allow Sanchez to pitch out of the bullpen for another year and Daniel Norris to to get 10-15 more starts in Triple-A. It takes the pressure off and allows a 22 year old to learn where the stakes aren’t quite as high. If the Santana experiment works, the Blue Jays get a veteran starter to shore up the back of the rotation until his health blows up again or until the Jays have another, better, in-house solution.
If Santana gets to the end (or even middle) of spring training and the Jays discover that there’s nothing left in that arm, then they’ve lost nothing and can move on with the original plans. Norris, Sanchez or Estrada aren’t going anywhere. This is clearly a low-risk, high-reward move that gives Santana another kick at the can.
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