More Thoughts on Braves Starting Pitching and Signing of Santana

Reactions from today’s free agent signing of starting pitcher Ervin Santana by the Atlanta Braves are mixed. Industry people and baseball traditionalists tend to like the move, and applaud the Braves for moving quickly to cover up for the season ending injury to Kris Medlen. Some SABR-leaning people are skeptical of the move, and don’t like that the Braves had to give up a draft pick for one year of a league-average pitcher.

Dan Symborski at ESPN calls this a panic move while putting a dollar figure on the draft pick the Braves are giving up, adding that to the salary they’re paying Santana this season:

The pre-free agency value for the typical 26th pick is roughly 3.5 WAR, and that amount of talent would cost $19.6 million in the free agency market — while the majority of prospects don’t succeed, the payout when they succeed is massive. […]

Add the $19.6 million to the salary he’ll make in Atlanta, we’re now talking about a de facto $33.6 million preliminary cost for one season of Ervin Santana’s services. In one way of looking at it, Santana’s the most expensive pitcher over the course of a single season, in baseball history.

The loss of the draft pick hurts the Braves in their effort to rebuild the system, but from their perspective this deal likely only delays that additional draft pick one season. If Santana can repeat his 2013 performance, then he’ll likely head back out on the free agent market at the end of the season seeking yet another multi-year contract. While that didn’t work out this off-season, there’s reason to believe that with a good 2014 he will have two consecutive solid seasons to take with him to the market instead of one, and that could raise teams’ confidence in him and increase his chances of landing a big contract. Those factors could make the Braves feel comfortable in extending Santana a qualifying offer in order to get draft pick compensation.

Before the injury to Kris Medlen and the signing of Santana, there was the interesting possibility of the Braves fielding a starting rotation of five home-grown signed and/or drafted players. Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, and Alex Wood all joined the ranks of professional ballplayers with the Braves. I say this to demonstrate two things, first is how well the Braves have scouted and developed starting pitchers over the years. And second is how important their system has been to filling out their rotation. Perhaps that contributes to the level of shock at the signing of Santana, as Braves fans (including me) are not used to the team having to spend big money in the free agent market to supplement their rotation.

Of course, the importance of the Braves development system leads the conversation back to the need for that extra draft pick — a vitally important tool for Atlanta in maintaining a cost effective Major League rotation through their minor league pipeline.

There are other young starting pitchers yet to make their Major League debut in the Braves system, but the general consensus is that none are ready just yet. With some Major League experience, including the postseason, David Hale seems ready, and he may be forced to step into a spot to open the season as Beachy and Minor are slowed by injuries. Beyond Hale is Cody Martin, who threw well for half a season last year at triple-A. It would have fallen to him and a few of the minor league free agents the Braves signed, like Yunesky Maya or recently acquired Zach Stewart, to fill the last spot in the rotation prior to the Santana signing. Martin likely needs a bit more experience at triple-A, and a lack of confidence in the other options is one of the big reasons the Braves felt they needed to make the move for Santana.

The “next wave” of starters is more of a mixed bag of starters who might be better suited as relievers. J.R. Graham, Gus Schlosser, Ian Thomas, and Jason Hursh are all guys who could be ready to contribute this season, but their contribution could be limited to just the bullpen. As starters they might take longer to develop.

The “next next wave” of young starters below that group is a trio of really good arms who all have a better than average chance to be mid-to-top of the rotation starters. That group includes top prospect Lucas Sims, Mauricio Cabrera, and Wes Parsons. Those three guys will form the core of the rotation at Lynchburg this season, the Braves high-A affiliate. There’s a chance one of more of those three could move quickly to double-A this season and possibly be ready for the Majors next season, but more than likely they are two years away — and that two year gap is what the Braves are trying to fill in.

Before the injuries the Braves plan for the rotation this season (after the front four of Minor, Teheran, Medlen, and Beachy) seemed to be to rely on a combination of Wood, Hale, or Freddy Garcia in the fifth spot to get them to mid-season when Gavin Floyd would be ready. Wood, Hale, and Garcia, would also constitute rotation depth that could be called on in case of an injury. The problem encountered in the past week was that not one, not two, but three projected starters (Medlen, Minor, and Beachy) will likely not be ready when the season starts. That effectively exhausted the Braves depth, leaving them a pitcher short in the rotation.

So the Braves expectation before Spring Training of being able to cover up for an injury or even two seemed like enough, especially with the intention of adding an additional starter in Floyd mid-season. Of the prospects I speak of above, the likelihood that one or more of them would be ready by mid-season also seemed plausible. The perfect storm of all these injuries happening to begin the season is what caught the Braves off-guard and out of depth.

So maybe signing Santana was a panic move, but it was a necessary panic move. The Braves could have traded for a starter, giving up the equivalent of a first round prospect (or more), and Trader Wren almost certainly took inventory of the market for starting pitchers prior to signing Santana — in some ways the Braves knew what was available on the trade market since they’ve been trying to acquire another starter for most of the off-season. Signing Santana protects the current prospects in the Braves system, and likely delays the additional draft pick one season if all goes well this year with Ervin.

I’m still not keen on Ervin Santana, but I do believe that the Braves did really well to get someone of (at least) his caliber on such short notice while not unloading a lot of prospects in a trade. I am concerned that the emergency money the Braves used to sign Santana may have overflowed the coffers to the point where the team has no salary room left to make a move for any other needs that might arise during the season. (Of course, Wren could always keep asking for more money from management. Why didn’t they think of that sooner?)

With the Braves budget now beyond capacity, any trade during the season would need to be for a low cost player, or would need to include the other team paying salary. When the other team assumes the burden of paying the player they are trading away, the cost in prospects for the player (plus salary) being acquired is usually higher. So while the Braves may have saved their minor league system now, they may have to use more of it during the season if they need to acquire a player.

It’s an imperfect move, and it may work out great or blow up in the Braves face. Clearly though, it was a move the Braves thought they had to make.

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