This is the fourth in an ongoing series examining high-profile free agent starters that may be of particular interest to the Twins. You can follow the rest of the series by checking in regularly at Twins Daily.
The Royals took a gamble last offseason when they traded for Ervin Santana, who was coming off an ugly season in Anaheim where he went 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA while coughing up a league-leading 39 home runs. Kansas City didn't have to give up much in the deal, but they did take on a $12 million commitment to a pitcher in the wake of a poor season. For a club that's hardly been known for aggressive, win-now type moves, the splash certainly drew some attention (especially in combination with the blockbuster James Shields trade).
The Royals ended up with their highest win total (86) since 1989 this season, and Santana played a big part, bouncing back in a major way to post a 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 211 innings. Considering that the right-hander had preceded his 2012 clunker with strong seasons in both 2011 and 2010, his down year looks like the outlier. As a 30-year-old with a recent record of success and the ability to miss some bats, Santana is arguably the top starting pitcher openly available this winter outside of Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka.
Are the Twins prepared to become involved in what is sure to be a competitive market with the hopes of once again adding a Santana to the top of their rotation? Let's take a look at the pros and cons.
Why Does He Fit?
On a basic level, the problem with Twins pitching these days is quite obvious: they allow way too many hits. As a staff in 2013, they allowed the most knocks of any MLB team (1,591) and among the 11 pitchers that made at least one start for Minnesota, nine allowed an average of more than 10.0 hits per nine innings. To put that in some context, the American League average for H/9IP was 8.8 and only four qualifying pitchers finished the season with a mark of 10.0 or above.
Santana would be a refreshing change of pace. His career H/9IP rate is 8.7 and he hasn't allowed more than a hit per inning since 2009. Even in 2012, when he struggled, Santana held opponents to a .238 batting average and registered a solid 1.27 WHIP; his disappointing results were largely tied to an absurdly high home run rate that was mostly out of line with the rest of his career, and almost surely wouldn't be repeated at Target Field.
While he had a few elbow issues crop up in 2012 (another part of the reason Kansas City took a risk in acquiring him) he's mostly been injury-free since 2009, averaging 32 starts and 210 innings per season.
Why Doesn't He Fit?
Well, cost is going to be the main factor. I'm willing to believe that Terry Ryan and the Twins are prepared loosen the purse strings for a guy they really like, but even as a strong fit Santana may have priced himself out of their range with an outstanding season in KC. Since he carries fewer question marks than fellow top free agent talents such as Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Phil Hughes, Santana could be the most coveted option for clubs seeking reliable help at the top of the rotation (and looking to avoid the Tanaka sweepstakes). That means he may be looking at a contract approaching (or even exceeding) $100 million.
Other than his price tag, it's tough to name a reason the Twins shouldn't at least pursue Santana. He's largely been a very good pitcher in recent years, he's reasonably young, he throws hard with good command and he's been quite durable. He's probably not going to be an "ace" in the traditional sense, but he might be the closest thing you'll find on this year's market. He's a safer bet than most the alternatives.
What Will He Cost?
Offseason Handbook estimate: five years, $80 million. As always, the contract could easily prove larger since we can't really anticipate how much the new revenues will inflate the market, but I have a hard time believing he'll get less than that. Santana is coming off a career year and has a more consistently strong recent MLB track record than any of his free agent peers.