Thursday, February 4, 2016

Is Santana The Ace Minnesota Needs?

Let's rewind back to March 2015. It was a simpler time for the Twins. Spring Training was well underway, and they were just on the brink of seeing their latest free agent acquisition pitching meaningful games at Target Field. Then a failed drug test happened, and it was followed by an 80 game suspension. Although Ervin Santana had plenty of promise for the Twins a season ago, I wondered before things went down hill, what exactly the expectations should have been.

Taking aim at Santana's Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, I questioned what he would look like in a Twins uniform. Knowing that the outfield was going to include Torii Hunter, and that left field seemed to be up in the air, things could have been ugly. Fortunately for Santana, his debut with the Twins came with defensive gem Eddie Rosario already entrenched in the every day lineup. What happened however, followed the cautionary mold.

In 2015, Santana made 17 starts for the Twins. He compiled a 4.00 ERA that was backed by a 4.17 FIP. His strikeout numbers took a dip (6.8 per nine as opposed to 8.2 the season before), and he allowed 12 long balls in just over 108 innings pitched. Far from poor numbers, Santana also didn't pitch to the tune of the rotational ace that the Twins had hoped he would be.

What Santana has going for him however is the way in which he ended the 2015 campaign. Following some rust needing to be knocked off (which took roughly 10 starts), Santana began to see things click. In his final seven games of the 2015 season, he was extremely impressive. Over the course of 50.0 IP, Santana owned a 1.62 ERA and allowed just a .209/.275/.294 batting average against. In those seven starts, he also surrendered just one home run, and he also struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings.

As a whole, Santana's performance equated to the lowest hard hit contact rate of his career (27.5%), and he shaved off over 3% of his line drive rate from 2014 (down to 21.5%). Neil Allen's work also showed through with the Twins newest acquisition in that Santana threw his curveball over 13% of the time for just the second season of his career.

This leads us back to where we are now. Santana should be in a significantly better place heading into the upcoming season, but one area remains a concern. Although Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario should help drive an ERA down much like that of the outfield defense the Royals employed for Santana, Miguel Sano isn't going to do him any favors. That will be a notion supported by the entirety of the Twins pitching staff, but one Santana will need to surely avoid.

Arguably the best part of the Twins pitching situation is in the fact that it's in a much better place than that of even a season ago. Regardless of the oddly capably season Mike Pelfrey gave Paul Molitor, it's a tough argument to suggest the depth and talent for 2016 isn't a much better grouping. With Phil Hughes as a prime rebound candidate, and Kyle Gibson looking to take another step forward, pressure should be lifted off of Santana's shoulders.

Seeing Ervin Santana mow down hitters at nearly a 9.0 K/9 rate likely isn't going to happen. His numbers in the National League were never realistically going to translate. However, the fear of his FIP numbers becoming more reflective of his total ability should be muted by the depth around him and the talent behind him.

Often times national writers want to point to the fact that the Twins don't have a de facto ace. You'd be hard pressed to tab any one pitcher as a one game playoff best bet. That said, Santana is more than capable of being a key cog in a rotation that, as a whole, should be one of the best in Twins recent history.

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