The signing of Johan Santana to a minor league deal by the Blue Jays was derided by many, understandably so.
Santana has not thrown a pitch in an MLB game since 2012. He attempted a comeback with the Orioles last year, but a torn achilles tendon put an end to that..
The two-time Cy Young Award winner was pitching in his native Venezuela this winter, and according to reports was pitching well, if not at his former velocity, before being shut down with shoulder tightness in January.
What’s the point in bringing Santana aboard, a reasonable person might well ask?
After all, the guy hasn’t pitched in almost three years, and he seemed for all intents and purposes to be finished after a 134 pitch no-hitter in 2012. He won’t be ready for Opening Day, and may not be ready until May, at the earliest. And he has a lengthy history of injuries and resulting surgeries, so at the age of 35, isn’t it time to look elsewhere for starting pitching support?
It’s hard to explain the Blue Jays thinking, but here goes….
We all know that the first four spots in the Blue Jays starting rotation are all but sewn up by Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, and Marcus Stroman (and not necessarily in that order). The fifth spot is up for grabs, with Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada the leading candidates, and Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins on the furthest margins for the job.
Sanchez has a history of struggling with the command of his full repertoire of pitches, although he was lights out when limited to his fastball/sinker in a half season of relief last year. Brett Cecil would appear to have the edge for the closer’s job at the moment, but if he struggles, or if the club has trouble filling out their bullpen with suitable arms, Sanchez could find himself in an 8th or 9th inning role fairly quickly. As much as it makes sense to try to give him an opportunity to establish himself as a starter, if he scuffles, that may have to take place in Buffalo.
Norris rode an incredible wave of helium to rise from High A ball to the Majors last year, and has firmly established himself as one the game’s top prospects. His mid-90s fastball and secondary pitches allowed him to miss a lot of bats last year. At the same time, economizing his pitch count was an issue in 2014. Norris was on a strict 90 pitch count for much of the season, but he worked his way beyond the sixth inning in only 2 out of 25 starts. The next step in his development as a pitcher is to learn to induce more weak contact from hitters. Strikeouts are great, and decrease reliance on the defence, but groundball outs are more efficient. Pitchers who can get some outs in the seventh innings save wear and tear on their bullpens. Stroman has already proven that he has learned this lesson. Norris may need more time at AAA in order to learn it himself.
So, in the best and rosiest of scenarios, Santana gets himself back into shape in spring training, then gets his feet underneath him four 3-4 starts at Buffalo. With off days on the 7th and 20th of April, the team may only need 3 starts from the fifth man in the rotation for the month. Estrada, if the two youngsters falter, could hold down that spot, and then help bolster the bullpen when Santana is ready. With his flyball tendency, it's better for Estrada to have his pitches cut back, and have him throw out of the bullpen in the long term.
A medium-case scenario would have Santana pitching until mid-season, by which time Norris has proven he’s ready for the big time. Or Santana has a prolonged stay in Buffalo, and provides some insurance. Since he can opt out of his deal if he's not on the 25-man by April 28th, that's not likely. And if he's not on the 25-man by then, his already slim chances of helping the team will have become eye of the needle-like.
Worst case scenario: Santana has nothing left, and proves that he’s finished once and for all. It cost very little, and it’s not like there’s a hole in the rotation left by his absence.