Every offseason, a few players who thought they would cash in during the winter find themselves without a contract as the regular season nears.
It happened to Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse last year. It happened to Ryan Ludwick the year before, and Vladimir Guerrero in 2011, after a 29-homer season in which he hit .300. It happened to Oliver Perez in 2009, before the Mets still signed him to a $36 million deal.
Right-handed starting pitcher Ervin Santana was the casualty of this winter's market. He entered the offseason hoping for a contract worth $90 million to $100 million, but after Masahiro Tanaka signed for $155 million, the starting pitching market never developed the way many thought it would. Matt Garza settled for $50 million, as did Ubaldo Jimenez. Those two were the pitchers most similar to Santana in this year's free-agent class.
On Friday, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that the Phillies are "now inquring about" Santana. The Phils were dealt a blow on Thursday when Cole Hamels' scheduled throwing session was canceled by arm fatigue. They may now be without Hamels through mid-May, which means they could use another starter even after signing A.J. Burnett the first week of spring training.
A team source later refuted the report to the Philadelphia Inquirer. It's likely that the initial interest was leaked by Santana's camp.
It would make sense for the Phillies to explore this option. Santana is no longer in line for a mega-deal, and at this point in the offseason he will likely settle for a short-term, one- or two-year contract that allows him to hit free agency again while he's still relatively young. Santana turned 31 in December.
He had a career year in 2013 with the Royals, going 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA in 32 starts. The win total wasn't high, but who cares? Santana threw 211 innings, posted a 1.14 WHIP and walked just 2.2 batters per nine innings. Santana had 23 quality starts -- only eight major-league pitchers had more.
Santana made $13 million last season, and he turned down a qualifying offer of $14.1 million from the Royals. Because Santana turned down the qualifying offer, any signing team (other than the Royals, of course) will forfeit an early draft pick. The Phillies have a top-10 pick in June's draft, so their first-round selection is protected. They would forfeit the 44th overall pick if they signed Santana. The draft pick forfeiture has also hampered Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, both of whom are still looking for jobs.
If the Phils were to discuss a one-year deal with Santana, he'd likely want at least $14 million, the price of the qualifying offer. But he doesn't have a ton of leverage anymore -- most teams are comfortable with their rotations and their payrolls. This might result in the price decreasing to the $10 million to $12 million range.
The question then becomes: Is Santana worth it for the Phillies for $12 million and the loss of the 44th pick?
Ordinarily I wouldn't think so, but I do in this case, only because the Phillies are already so committed to winning in 2014.
Santana would significantly boost the Phillies' rotation, before and after Hamels returns. His presence would enable the Phils to survive those six or so weeks Hamels misses in a way that David Buchanan or Jeff Manship or Sean O'Sullivan or (gulp) Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez couldn't. And when Hamels returns, all the sudden the Phillies have a rotation of Hamels-Cliff Lee-Burnett-Santana-Kyle Kendrick/Roberto Hernandez. That's two No. 1 starters and two No. 2 starters in one rotation.
The only reason this whole idea sounds ridiculous is because Santana is a solid starter who was supposed to make a lot of money this offseason. But that ship has sailed, and as the Burnett signing illustrated several weeks ago, one-year deals are rarely a bad thing.
The Phils are already spending more than ever before to field a team that, on paper, can't compete with the NL's elite. Don't you have to protect all the other investments?