On the shelf in his corner locker this season, Ervin Santana kept two Twins giveaway bobbleheads: One of himself, pitching righthanded, and facing it, a throwback one of Johan Santana, throwing lefty. They were mirror images, Santana liked to joke, right down to their names; Ervin was given the name “Johan” at birth, but changed it upon becoming a professional ballplayer to avoid confusion with the Twins’ Cy Young winner.
Santana’s time as a Twin probably ended on Tuesday, when the team declined its option to pay him $14 million for a fifth season in Minnesota. And while the gregarious right-hander’s four seasons in Target Field never came close to reaching the success and domination of his namesake’s career, Santana deserves to be remembered fondly by the team’s fans.
No, he was never Johan Santana. But there is value in being, say, Carl Pavano, too.
Santana came to Minnesota as a free agent in December 2014, signing what remains the most expensive free-agent contract the Twins have ever proffered: $55 million guaranteed over four years. His deal was the last during a three-year spending splurge by general manager Terry Ryan on mid-level starting pitchers that their scouts believed would help fill out a thin rotation: Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey for 2013, Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco for 2014, and Santana, the most accomplished of the group, for 2015.
The final numbers are in now, and it’s undoubtedly true that the money could have been better spent. The Twins committed $194 million to that quintet (minus the $10 million or so that other teams assumed when the Twins traded them, and another $6.75 million that Santana forfeited during a steroids suspension), and received 338 starts in exchange, an expenditure of about $524,000 per start. (As a point of reference, that’s not much less than what Jose Berrios earned for the entire 2018 season.)
The cumulative record: 102-129 (.442) — the Twins went 152-186 (.450) in their starts — with a combined 4.49 ERA. Being lumped in with the others, though, might not be fair to Santana, who easily delivered the most value. Hughes’ 2014 season (a 3.52 ERA and an absurd ratio of 186 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 209 2/3 innings) deserves mention, too, but Santana produced 9.4 wins above replacement during his Twins career, as measured by baseball-reference.com, while the other four combined for 8.4 WAR.
Santana went just 30-25 in his four seasons, two of which were defined by his absence: An 80-game suspension for failing a steroid test that delayed his Twins debut by three months in 2015, and a 2018 season wrecked by February finger surgery, an injury that his hand, and his velocity, never recovered from. But in between, Santana pitched at an All-Star level — and not just during 2017, when he was actually rewarded for his effectiveness — 16 wins and a 3.28 ERA — with a selection to the AL squad.
Santana’s 2016 season was one of the best “bad” seasons by a starting pitcher in Twins history. The righthander went only 7-11 (and the Twins just 8-22 in his 30 starts), but his 3.38 ERA was the lowest by a sub-.500 Twins pitcher since Roger Erickson in 1980. But it was a sneakily good season, worth nearly four wins; Santana delivered 16 quality starts, yet the Twins lost nine of them. He left with a lead that the bullpen blew four times, left a game tied six times, five of which the Twins lost, and only twice all season did he leave with a deficit of more than two runs, yet the Twins never rallied to victory.
In the past five years, the Twins have had five shutouts; four of them belonged to Santana.
So where does he rank? Santana’s 3.68 ERA as a Twin is 12th best among starters with more than 50 starts, and somewhere between 10th and 20th feels about right. His career here wasn’t long enough to rate higher — you’d put him behind Brad Radke and Frank Viola, for instance, though they had higher ERAs — and wasn’t dominating enough to challenge Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat or the other Johan. But he had some great moments, and was a leader, particularly of the Spanish-speaking players, in the clubhouse. He’s almost certainly the third-best Twins starter of the 21st century, behind Johan Santana and Radke.
Perhaps a good comp is Jerry Koosman, though the Minnesota native was a lefty. Both came to the Twins near the end of good and memorable (but not Hall of Fame) careers, and both showed they still had plenty left. Koosman won 20 games in 1979 and 16 the following year, but moved on soon after. And both left Minnesota feeling they weren’t finished: Koosman won 43 more games, post-Twins, and Santana said in September that he expects to return to full strength next spring.