The Minnesota Twins signed veteran right-hander Ervin Santana to a four-year contract this past winter. Can they realistically get four years out of him? Let's start our series of 2015 Prospect Retrospectives and see what he was like as a prospect and how his career looks in context.
Santana was signed by the Anaheim Angels in September of 2000 for $700,000 (a large bonus at the time) out of the Dominican Republic. At the time he was using the name " " and was supposedly born November 28, 1983. He opened his career in the 2001 Arizona Rookie League with good success, posting a 3.22 ERA with a 69/35 K/BB in 59 innings. I didn't write much about rookie ball players back then but a similar prospect (big bonus, throws hard, good debut, but command issues) would likely merit a high-ceiling C or a C+ nowadays.
Santana moved up to Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League in 2002. He went 14-8, 4.16 ERA with a sharp 144/48 K/BB in 147 innings, allowing 132 hits. I was able to see him in person and was very impressed: he was hitting 94-98 and showed an excellent slider. I gave him a Grade B+ in my prospect book entering 2003 and wrote that he could be a "special" pitcher with ace potential.
2003 was also solid: 10-2, 2.53 with a 130/36 K/BB in 125 innings for Rancho Cucamonga in the California League, followed by a 3.94 ERA and a 23/12 K/BB in 30 innings for Double-A Arkansas. The big news had nothing to do with his performance however: he was exposed in "Age-Gate." It turned out that his real name was Ervin Santana and his real birthday was January 10, 1983. He was still a strong prospect though, with the impressive fastball and slider and an improved change-up. He was still a Grade B+ entering 2004 and ranked 13th on my pitching prospect list.
Arm woes struck in 2004: he was limited to just eight starts and 44 innings for Arkansas. He was effective in those innings, with a 3.30 ERA and a 48/18 K/BB, but the word on his health was not good: he missed time with both elbow and shoulder pain. That was a big red flag and his rating dropped down to Grade B entering 2005, noting that "he can be an excellent pitcher, but can he stay away from the doctors?"
Santana was able to avoid the medics and ended up spending most of 2005 in the major leagues with a measure of success, going 12-8, 4.65 in 134 innings with a 99/47 K/BB. He followed up with 16-8, 4.28, 141/70 in 208 innings in 2006. You should know his history from there: he struggled in 2007, rebounded in 2008, struggled again in 2009, was effective in 2010 and 2011, struggled again in 2012, but was solid enough in '13 and '14.
His career has been up-and-down and while he hasn't been a genuine ace, at his best he's quite solid. Overall his career record stands at 119-100, 4.17 ERA, 99 ERA+, 1507/589 K/BB in 1883 innings. He stands at 22.2 fWAR currently, with 2008 (6.0 fWAR) his best season by far.
So how does this deal look, four years and $55 million?
Through age 31, Santana's Sim Score comp list looks like this: Pat Hentgen, Dan Haren, Dennis Martinez, Kevin Millwood, Kevin Appier, Darryl Kile, Mark Gubicza, Scott Erickson, and Brad Penny. The fates of this group?
***Hentgen got hurt at age 32, rebounded at age 33, then totally collapsed at 34 and was out of baseball by 35.
***Haren has been okay at ages 32 and 33, slightly better than replacement level but not at his earlier standards.
***Martinez had injury seasons at ages 32 and 33, but rebounded strongly and did the best pitching of his life between ages 34 and 40, earning four All-Star nods during that stretch.
***Millwood began declining at age 32, rebounded at 34, then crashed at 35.
***Appier was no longer an ace by this point but was still an above-average pitcher through 34 then crashed at 35.
***Kile was still very effective at ages 32 and 33 but suffered a heart attack and died on June 22, 2002.
***Gubicza had a good season at age 32. His arm exploded at 33 and his career ended quickly.
***Erickson got hurt at 32 and never posted an ERA better than 5.55 the rest of his career.
***Penny was limited to 56 innings by injury at age 32 and has been ineffective ever since.
Of the 10 most comparable pitchers to Santana at this point of his career, one (Martinez) actually improved as he got older and even Martinez had to get through two bad seasons first. We don't know what would have happened with Kile overall but he was still effective until his tragic passing. We don't have complete data on Haren but he's not terrible. Hentgen and Millwood eeked out some success but were no longer durable and crashed by 35. Erickson, Gubicza, and Penny were all finished quickly.
You can draw your own conclusions based on the historical parallels. My guess is that the Twins will get two decent years out of Santana but that the last two years of the contract will be problematic. What do you think?