Thursday, March 26, 2015

Twins Need Ervin Santana To Elevate In 2015

Twins pitcher Ervin Santana walks to the bull pen after warming up during the Minnesota Twins spring training at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers on Sunday Mar. 1, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
This offseason, the Twins decided to lay low for most of the free agency period. While teams like the Dodgers, White Sox, and Padres went out and revamped their rosters, the Twins went for a more modest approach. Bringing in only one position player, Torii Hunter, the Twins then turned their focus to the mound. Signing Ervin Santana to a 4-year, $55 million contract, it immediately became apparent that fixing pitching was a priority. Now as 2015 rolls around, just how much can the Twins afford to lean on their new acquisition?

To be fair, it's virtually irrelevant to think about which starter profiles in which spot of the rotation. Outside of your staff ace, matchups are mixed throughout the season, and it's about going out on a daily basis and getting the job done. That being said, for the purpose of argument, let's try to dissect what level of production the Twins should get from their new pitcher. There's no doubt Phil Hughes is the staff ace, but after that things become foggier. Expectations from many are that Kyle Gibson will take big strides forward, and likely land himself into the number two starter role. That leaves Santana and 2014 free agent pickup Ricky Nolasco, to claim positions three and four.

A big league pitcher for 10 seasons now, Santana has spent all but one season in the American League. After spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Angels, he spent a season with the AL Central Kansas City Royals. Deciding to walk away from an interested Twins team a season ago, Santana signed another one year deal, this time with the Atlanta Braves. Now cashing in with the Twins, Minnesota will be looking to get the best of what the 32-year-old has left.

Looking at the last two seasons for Santana, a few numbers jump off the page. Going back to 2013 with the Royals, Santana threw to a career best 3.24 ERA. Unfortunately, that number was backed with a 3.93 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Conversely, in Atlanta last season, Santana owned a 3.95 ERA and a 3.39 FIP. If there's something the Twins should be concerned about, it's this set of data right here. Looking at the Royals numbers, they are indicative of a pitcher being bailed out by an outfield that ranked amongst the best in the majors. With Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, and Alex Gordon behind him, Santana was often helped out by his teammates. In the National League, he was able to overpower what is regarded as a weaker hitting league, despite being helped out less by an outfield that included only one plus fielder in Jason Heyward.

If we push those numbers forward to the Twins in 2015, Minnesota may have some cause for concern. The current outfield alignment appears to be Oswaldo Arcia in left, Aaron Hicks in center, and Torii Hunter in right. What that breaks down to is one of the toughest and largest ballparks in baseball having massive holes in both corner outfield spots. This season, Santana should see numbers reflective of a ratio much like the experience he had in Atlanta, except that the Twins play in the American League. Without the benefit of a lesser hitting league, and not facing the pitcher spot in the lineup, expecting Santana's FIP to rise is realistic as well. That change could cause an unfortunate rise in the ERA department as well.

Over the course of his career, Santana has only owned an FIP under 4.00 three times (two of them coming the last two seasons). In his time in Los Angeles, the Angels had players such as Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Rivera, and a perennial Gold Glove winning Torii Hunter behind him. Asking the Twins current outfield to hide an FIP above 4.00 in the same fashion seems somewhat far fetched.

Looking at Twins starters last season (Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, and Kevin Correia), Minnesota fielding allowed for an average of +0.80 FIP per pitcher. Raising ERA by nearly a whole run per nine is something that Santana could find detrimental. His career 4.17 ERA being elevated to 4.87 would put him somewhere near the realm of what Kevin Correia was to the Twins last season. To be fair, that's probably somewhat of a doomsday scenario, but the reasoning still stands.

Over the course of the last two seasons, both which should be considered in the good to respectable realm, Ervin Santana has been somewhat a by-product of his environment. If the Twins are going to get what they hope out of their most recent free-agent splash, they will need him to be significantly better than his surrounding parts. That remains something yet to be seen.