Friday, 14 March 2014

Belated Thoughts on the Santana Saga

Well that was fun wasn't it? Feeling, for one Saturday afternoon at least, as though the Blue Jays might actually land one of this off-season's most sought after free agent pitchers? And on a one-year deal? And for just the same $14 million that they must have had earmarked in the budget for qualifying Josh Johnson, and which they still thought long and hard about offering him despite a 2013 season that was even worse than Ervin Santana's 2012?! Sigh...

I can barely even bring myself to feel feelings about this to be perfectly honest, but if I could I'm sure they'd be of the darkly negative variety I'm almost constantly railing against here and on Twitter. I'm still trying really hard not to let myself go down that rabbit hole by focusing on all the reasons that I didn't want anything to do with Ervin Santana back in November when the entire free agent market was the Blue Jays' oyster. It's doesn't seem to be working though, because pretty much all of those reasons went right out the window the second it became clear Santana would sign a one-year pillow contract to try to build up his value and cash in on a multi-year deal next off-season.

At his best, Santana is about a league average innings eater, while at his worst he's been a sub-replacement level scrub. He gives up too many home runs, even in his good years, and that's with the benefit of having pitched in spacious, pitcher friendly home ballparks for the entirety of his career. There are warts, and there are question marks (especially given reports of some scary medicals), but at the end of the day there aren't many rotations in baseball that aren't improved by the addition of Ervin Santana. There's not a ton of upside, but league average is not a four letter word. Every team has at least one guy in their rotation that is worse than Ervin Santana, and as things stand today it's entirely possible the Blue Jays will give not one but two rotation spots to guys for whom league average would be success beyond their, or our, wildest dreams.

On a one-year deal, the risk of Santana getting injured or declining over the course of the contract is as mitigated as any guaranteed contract to a pitcher can possibly be, so it's incredibly frustrating that the Blue Jays didn't do a bit more to try and get a deal with Santana done, even if it meant offering him a bit more than the equivalent of the $14.1 million qualifying offer that he rejected at the beginning of the off-season. As was true of Baltimore when they signed Ubaldo, the 26th draft pick that Atlanta gives up in signing Santana is worth significantly more than the 50th pick Toronto would have. If we apply the valuation of three times the value to their draft pool that Dave Cameron wrote about at FanGraphs, the Braves' pick would be worth about $5.4 million, whereas the Jays' pick would be worth more like $3.2 million. Maybe if they had slid some of that $2.2 million across the table to Santana I'd be writing something different right now. Not to mention, since we're talking surrendering draft picks and all:

Trading a second round pick in this year's draft, one in which they already have two first round picks, for a pretty good shot at an extra first rounder in next year's draft? That's gotta lessen the sting of sacrificing the pick considerably. Of course there's always the chance that Santana breaks or pulls a Josh Johnson and pitches his way right out of being worth a qualifying offer, but most teams signing qualified free agents know they're probably kissing that draft pick goodbye forever as it's less likely their signings will be worth a qualifying offer at the end of whatever multi-year pact they agree to.

For all we know, maybe the Blue Jays tried to top the Braves' offer by a bit, but there are plenty of reasons that a pitcher like Santana, trying to build up his value on a one-year deal, would prefer to go to the Atlanta Braves than come join the Blue Jays in the toughest division in baseball. The whole A.L. East thing tends to get a bit overblown, but as Jeff Sullivan shows at FanGraphs, the A.L. East projects to have the highest combined WAR total, and the N.L. East the lowest. The A.L. East is strong from top to bottom, and the N.L. East is about as top heavy as it gets. The A.L. East is full of parks that favour the offense, and the N.L. East plays pretty neutral.

In this case, it sounds like those factors were probably the tie breaker between equivalent offers, but it all just gets us back to why the hell the Jays couldn't/wouldn't outbid the Braves for Santana's services. The recent injuries to Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor have obviously necessitated this emergency signing for the Braves, but they were considered a team that was pretty much at the limit of their available payroll just a couple of weeks ago. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have been predicted all along to take on salary this off-season, and have been making noise about it themselves which was something of a departure for the notoriously tight-lipped club. Alex Anthopoulos seems pretty averse to getting involved in bidding wars, rarely seeming to budge from his valuations of players, but I have to believe that they had the resources available to outbid the Braves had the mutual interest been there. If they didn't, it's just plain indefensible in one of a number of ways.

Maybe they maxed out the payroll last off-season, and never had a commitment from ownership that more would be available should they need to plug holes in subsequent years. That would make the deals with the Marlins and Mets indefensible, as it literally meant they were all-in last year and are now handcuffed in improving the team (without further depleting the farm at least) now that it's proven necessary to do so. Or perhaps they had the commitment, and somewhere between then and now Rogers bailed on it, which is indefensible for reasons that I'm sure are obvious. The Blue Jays bought into a competitive window of three years, and that means being committed to winning for the entirety of the window, otherwise what the hell was the point? I would hope whoever controls the Rogers purse strings would know better than to push all the chips in for just a single season, where calamitous misfortune can so easily ruin what seems like a sure bet at the time. Or perhaps Anthopoulos has the money available and simply chose not to offer enough of it to Santana to make up for all the advantages that pitching in the N.L. East holds for a player in Santana's position. We'll never know how much more it would have taken, or even if they even had the opportunity, so calling this one indefensible might be a bit of a stretch, but if the Jays had the chance to seal the deal Saturday by sweetening the pot, or had the chance to top the Braves offer once it was on the table and didn't do it, well that would be a pretty tough one for this fan to swallow.

It seems as though that whole "mutual interest" thing might have been the real kicker all along though. At least that's what Gibbons and Anthopoulos have very strongly hinted at since, all but saying that they thought they had a deal in place with Santana and were as surprised as anyone when it fell through. Sure, Santana would probably have come to the Blue Jays had their offer remained the biggest on the table, but as soon as the National League came calling he didn't seem to spend much time mulling over whose $14 million he'd rather take.

It all just feels so familiar. Over the course of twenty years of futility we've watched the Blue Jays get good but never good enough, and no matter how close they get they never seem to be able to do what's necessary to take the next step. We've heard time and again, from regime after regime, how difficult it is to lure free agents to a "foreign" country. Pitchers want a friendlier stadium in a weaker division. Position players don't want anything to do with the turf. Every new GM seems to think that they'll be the one who will be able to overcome all the challenges of the Blue Jays gig, who will be able to convince ownership to kick in some extra coin, and who will be able to convince players to take it. Every time though, it seems like we see ownership give the GM just enough rope with which to hang himself. At least it certainly feels like that might have been what happened this time around. They let Anthopoulos take on a bunch of salary, and then pulled back when results didn't live up to expectations, both on the field and in their bottom line. Now, instead of being able to make the bold move to double down on contention, Anthopoulos appears to have been left scrounging for useful pieces in the free agent discount bin, and that's despite the perceived advantages that they held over other clubs this time around.

So I'm probably indulging entirely to much of the pissy, hysterical fan that lives within us all, it's not like they can force free agents to sign with them or anything, but I have officially given up on the Blue Jays doing any more than they have to improve this club prior to opening day. There's really only one useful guy left out there at this point, and that's Stephen Drew, a Scott Boras client. As I wrote about here, and Gideon Turk wrote about more recently at Blue Jays Plus, Drew is projected to be about as much of an upgrade over Goins/Izturis as Ubaldo and Santana are over Happ and company. It's literally the last free agent move they could make to show that they are serious about improving this team enough to make last year's moves anything more than a complete and utter waste of money and prospect capital.

They won't do it though. At this point how could we possibly expect them to?

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  1. I'm curious how much of an overpay you think it would have taken to get Santana to sign with the Jays over the Braves. To me, I think they would have had to pay close to $20 Million for Santana to take the risk of playing at Skydome over playing in the National League.

    Playing in the NL for one season could see him get close to 4 years $80 Million in a new contract if he's coming off back to back solid seasons. If he had went to the Jays instead and given up a lot of home runs some of the lustre would have been taken from his value. Maybe he only gets $60 Million over 4 years in that case. If you think my examples are somewhat realistic, then you're looking at about a $20 Million difference in the next 4 years. You've got to get a lot of cash now for you to be willing to take that risk on a future payout.

    1. I agree it would have taken a pretty significant overpay, which is probably why he didn't even give the Jays a chance to make a counter-offer from the sounds of it. I would like to think that we're at the point where at least 29 GMs are familiar with league and park adjusted statistics (Ruben Amaro Jr. excluded) and are therefore unlikely to be fooled by the better numbers he'll probably post in the N.L. The thing is, he's been pitching in friendly ballparks all along. I'm not sure that one more year of decent numbers in a pitcher friendly environment will put him in a much better situation than he's in now. If he's good he'll get qualified again, he'll still be coming from an even more favourable pitching environment, and he'll be another year older with another year of wear and tear on that elbow that seemed to be scaring so many teams off. I get why he'd prefer to pitch in Atlanta, I'm just not so sure doing so helps his case for next year as much as he probably thinks it does.