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Prospect Retrospective: the career of Ervin Santana

A look at the long and productive career of the Minnesota Twins playoff starter

Minnesota Twins v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Tonight the Minnesota Twins will send 16-game winner Ervin Santana to the mound in the Wild Card game against the New York Yankees. Here’s a look at the career of the veteran right-hander, what he was like as a prospect, and where he fits in historical 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 "Johan Santana" 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. Here is his scouting report for ‘04:

Ervin was signed as a free agent out of the Dominican in 2000. He has a great arm, with a 92-95 MPH fastball and a power slider. His changeup needs work, but since he throws strikes with both the heater and the slider, the lack of a consistent changeup hasn’t hurt him too much yet. His numbers in the California League were strong across the board: K/BB +63 percent, K/IP +27 percent, H/IP +27 percent. He held his own after promotion to Double-A, though he’ll likely need a year before being ready for big exposure in the majors. Santana is similar to Ramon Ortiz, and is the best of an intriguing crop of Latin American arms the Angels have signed in the last few years.

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, with this comment:

The good news here is that Ervin Santana’s 95 MPH fastball and nasty slider worked against Double-A hitters. The mediocre news is that he had a few control problems, and still needs to better his changeup. The bad news is that he was limited to just eight starts by arm trouble, a sore shoulder in the spring and a sore elbow in the summer. The elbow bugged him at times in 2003, so although surgery has been avoided thus far, his long- term health is in doubt, at least for me. I love his stuff, and given enough development time, he can be an excellent pitcher. But can he stay away from the doctors? All I can tell you is this: if I were in a fantasy league and I had Santana, I’d try to trade him. If I were Santana, I’d start eating an apple a day. Grade B, with health reservations

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.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Ervin Santana, 2006
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

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, was solid enough in '13 and '14, was busted for PED in 2015, then performed well for the Twins in ‘16 and ‘17.

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 149-124, 4.02 ERA, 103 ERA+, 1905/735 K/BB in 2383 innings. He stands at 28.2 fWAR currently, with 2008 (5.5 fWAR) his best season by far.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Comparable pitchers to this point in his career, by Sim Score, are James Shields, Woody Williams, Ted Lilly, Todd Stottlemyre, Ben Sheets, Darryl Kile, Mike Boddicker, Pat Hentgen, Josh Beckett, Mike Krukow, and John Lackey.

Among pitchers with a similar numbers of innings, Santana’s 28.2 fWAR in 2383 innings puts him in the same neighborhood with Krukow (28.8), Stottlemyre (28.7), Mike Scott (28.6), Mike Morgan (28.4), Mike Hampton (28.0), John Denny (27.9), and Ryan Dempster (27.8).

None of those guys were Hall of Fame superstars but all had long and successful careers, just like Ervin.