SAN DIEGO – The Twins love their Johan Santanas.
On Thursday they reached agreement on a four-year, $55 million contract with righthander Ervin Santana, a record for a Twins free agent. The deal includes a $14 million vesting option for 2019 based on innings pitched.
He goes by Ervin these days, but before 2003 his real name was Johan, same as the former Twins lefthander who won two Cy Young Awards while pitching in the Metrodome.
When the younger Santana was about to reach the majors with the Angels, he thought one Johan Santana in baseball was enough and switched his name to Ervin. He is 119-100 over a 10-year career with a no-hitter on his résumé and seven seasons in which he’s made at least 30 starts.
It would be a steal of a deal if he can produce like his namesake did during his peak years with the Twins. But if he just pitches like he has throughout his career, the Twins will have a reliable pitcher who can help stabilize a staff that has had the worst starters ERA in baseball over the last two seasons.
“I love it,” Twins first baseman Joe Mauer said. “He’s proven, and he’ll give us a chance to win every fifth day when he takes the ball. I like it a lot.”
General Manager Terry Ryan won’t discuss acquisitions until after the player passes a physical. That likely will take place early next week, with Santana officially being presented at Target Field afterward.
But Ryan, who had numerous conversations with teams and agents about starting pitching during the winter meetings, was straight to the point about why the club needed another starter.
“We’ve got quantity,” he said. “We’ve got to win some baseball games here. To do that, we just can’t keep going to the wheel. We have really struggled on that mound. ... When we get to September we don’t want to be a non-factor. I want to be playing for things beyond the halfway mark. It probably starts right there in the rotation and goes through the pitching staff.”
For the second consecutive year, the Twins have made a signficant move to bolster their rotation. Last offseason, they signed righthanders Phil Hughes — who went 16-10 — and Ricky Nolasco — who went 6-12. And Nolasco’s four-year, $49 million deal was the club record for a free agent at the time.
The deal for Santana was hammered out Wednesday night and Thursday morning at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, home of the winter meetings.
The Twins were interested in Santana last offseason. He rejected a one-year qualifying offer from Kansas City for $14.1 million after 2013 and elected to enter free agency. Any team that signed him had to surrender a draft pick as compensation, which scared some teams off. He ended up signing with the Braves — for $14.1 million — in an attempt to have a good year and cash in after 2014.
He went 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA for the Braves — and rejected another qualifying offer. Losing a draft pick didn’t scare the Twins off. Since they were one of the worst 10 teams in baseball last season, they will lose a second-round pick (the 44th overall), not a first-rounder.
Santana’s deal averages $13.5 million a season. Considering that Brandon McCarthy will receive $12 million a year from the Dodgers and Francisco Liriano will receive $13 million a year from Pittsburgh, $13.5 million for Santana seems fair — especially since he’s been more durable and productive than McCarthy and Liriano.
Santana, Hughes, Nolasco and Kyle Gibson will report to spring training as the clear front four of the rotation. Righthanders Trevor May, Mike Pelfrey and Alex Meyer and lefthander Tommy Milone can duke it out for the final spot in the rotation.
“He went to Atlanta last year, and I was glad he was in the other league,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “I’m glad he’s on our team now. When I faced him as a rookie, I don’t know if I ever saw his slider. I kept swinging over the top of it I don’t know how many times.
“He changes our pitching staff. He has a good track record.”
Ryan remains on the lookout for bullpen help. Righthanders Logan Ondrusek and Dustin McGowan are two pitchers they have shown interest in.