With injuries to their starting rotation reaching a crisis stage, the Atlanta Braves bit the financial bullet Wednesday by signing free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract, a move that drew praise within the clubhouse and fan base.
Santana, 31, was 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 211 innings last season for the Kansas City Royals and tied for fourth in the American League with 23 quality starts (six innings or more and three earned runs or fewer allowed).
The right-hander was weighing offers worth $13 million to $14 million or more from the Orioles and Blue Jays and was close to making a decision before the Braves swooped in.
“In light of what’s happened over the past few days with our pitching staff, we thought it was incumbent on us to do everything we could to strengthen our starting pitching,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren, who texted Santana’s agent, Jay Alou, shortly after pitcher Kris Medlen left Sunday’s game with an elbow injury expected to require surgery.
The Braves were talking to Santana before Brandon Beachy left Monday’s start against the Phillies with biceps tightness near his twice-surgically repaired elbow. That injury only strengthened their resolve to get Santana.
“It just worked out that he had not reached an agreement yet,” Wren said. “We feel like he really gives us a big shot in the arm as far as the rotation’s concerned.”
Santana was in uniform by 8 a.m. Wednesday and said at a hastily called news conference at Champion Stadium: “I’m very excited to be in this organization. Young talent. It’s going to be a fun season for us.”
He has a mid-90 mph fastball, a good slider and an above-average change-up, and Santana has improved his sinker and induced more ground balls in recent years.
The Braves determined that they had put in too much work assembling a playoff-caliber team to see it undermined by a compromised rotation, though it meant taking the payroll about $10 million above the planned $100 million limit.
“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. We’re in a winning mode,” Braves CEO Terry McGuirk said. “We think that the time is now. We’ve always been willing to add to the payroll and add to the substance of this club. … We want to send a message to the guys in this clubhouse and our fans and our sponsors, to our organization, that we expect to win, we want to win.”
Even as Wren was making his first contact with Santana’s agent, Braves president John Schuerholz was calling McGuirk — he serves as liaison to corporate owner Liberty Media — about the need to go over budget given the circumstances.
“This is an incredible decision by the organization because this is going to push us well above what we thought our budget would be this year,” Wren said. “But Mr. McGuirk and John jumped in to say this is important for our team.”
The move was well-received in the clubhouse and among fans on Twitter and the Internet.
“I thought he was one of the better guys on the market (this offseason) to begin with, and to get him on a one-year deal is huge,” Braves catcher Gerald Laird said of Santana. “I’m excited. We have a first-class organization. They go out there and get a guy like that, and you’re smiling.”
The Braves sacrificed a first-round draft pick in this June’s draft, the No. 26 overall pick, for signing Santana, since he rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Royals. Wren said losing that pick was made a little easier because the Braves gained the No. 32 pick as compensation for losing free agent Brian McCann. He indicated the move would’ve been made regardless because in the bigger picture the Braves are trying to win at the major league level.
Beachy’s issue is not believed to be as serious as Medlen’s, but the Braves don’t know when he’ll be ready. Starter Mike Minor might start the season on the disabled list after not being able to throw in January because of urinary-tract surgery. He’s expected to make his Grapefruit League debut in the next week. Gavin Floyd, recovering from Tommy John surgery, could join the rotation in May.
Santana, who has a 105-90 record and 4.19 ERA over nine seasons, said he’s been throwing all spring and is close to being ready for games, but Wren said they would be careful not to rush him and said he didn’t think Santana would be in the rotation for at least the first week of the regular season.
Signed by the Angels in 2000, Santana made his major league debut in 2005 and was an American League All-Star in 2008, when he was 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 219 innings.
“He’s a great pitcher,” said Braves reliever Jordan Walden, a former Angels teammate. “I was very happy to see that.”
Walden played catch with Santana on Wednesday and wasn’t surprised at how quickly the newcomer seemed comfortable in the Braves’ clubhouse.
“Awesome guy. I knew he was going to fit in right away over here,” Walden said.
Santana was 96-80 with a 4.33 ERA in eight seasons for the Angels before he was traded to the Royals in October 2012 for minor league pitcher Brandon Sisk. The Angels also paid $1 million of his $13 million salary as part of that trade.
Before his career-best season with the Royals in 2013, Santana had one of his worst seasons in 2012 with the Angels, going 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA and allowing a league-high 39 home runs in 178 innings.
“He just needed a new start,” Walden said. “He got out of Anaheim last year, and he liked it where he was (in Kansas City), and he’s going to love it here. I think he’ll be like he was last year, if not better.”