In just a few more days, the Minnesota Twins will be afforded the opportunity to see their $55 million free agent acquisition in action. After serving his performance enhancing drug related suspension, Ervin Santana will rejoin the 25 man roster, and the starting rotation for the Twins. With the Twins pitching staff being where it is in 2015, what the Twins should expect from Santana remains somewhat of a mystery.
After four years of futility from their starters, the Twins have seemingly turned a corner in 2015. No longer ranking at the bottom of the big leagues, Minnesota has finally opened a door that has afforded both more quality, and a higher quantity of starting pitchers. 16th in the majors when it comes to team ERA (3.87), and 8th in the American League, the Twins are in a much better place. Still dead last in the big leagues in strikeouts (439) and 27th in batting average against (.271), the Twins have plenty of reason to work towards continued improvement.
It's fair to question how Santana plays into that equation however.
As things stand currently, the Twins have some difficult decisions to make regarding the rotation. Phil Hughes is the staff ace, despite owning a 4.20 ERA. Hurt by the longball in 2015, Hughes has taken steps back, but is still a lock amongst the group for years to come. Kyle Gibson and Trevor May highlight the young core of the rotation. Both top draft picks, Gibson has been one of the club's best pitchers, and May has operated as the ace for the majority of the season. That leaves Mike Pelfrey and Tommy Milone.
Pelfrey continues to defy odds and owns a club best 3.06 ERA. Despite striking next to no one out, Pelfrey continually has gotten the job done after being sent to the bullpen out of spring training. Milone was jettisoned to Triple-A Rochester earlier this season, and after tearing up the farm, he's been on fire since his return. In five games since his return Milone has thrown to the tune of a 2.03 ERA and .246/.288/.364 slash line against. So how does Santana fit?
Most seem to be operating under the impression that it's Milone who could be sent packing. With team control, and the ability to send him back to Triple-A, the former Athletics pitcher possesses the most flexibility. Ideally, a trade of Pelfrey would happen, but there's no doubt his value is not high around the league. No matter who is moved out of the starting five however, the addition of Santana may not be what it seems.
Last season, Santana pitched in the National League for the first time in his career. His 3.95 ERA was backed by a 3.39 FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark. Despite being better than his final ERA suggested, Santana is far from a lights out pitcher. Owning a career 4.26 FIP in front of better fielding teams, there could be some cause for concern. Hovering around the high 3.00 ERA marks for the majority of his career, Santana's biggest asset to the Twins may be in his 7.2 career K/9, easily ranking amongst the best on the Twins staff.
There's little doubt that Santana would fall under the category of being a quality arm added into the rotation. In recent seasons, the Twins have needed to push more quantity to the mound than anything. However, expecting Santana to come in and light the world on fire seems far fetched as well. Considering the staff has been pitching well of late, the shuffling of that chemistry and those arms could come at a cost for Minnesota.
The Twins have a good problem in that they have more quality arms than they know what to do with. Right now though, Santana remains a wild card, and until Minnesota finds out exactly what he is going to bring, the hurt or gain from moving around Milone or another starter won't be felt.
Despite being a long term concern, it's also fair to suggest this problem may again rear its head in September. Due to his suspension. Santana is not eligible to pitch in the postseason. Should the Twins remain in the hunt, another rotation shuffle would need to take place before playoff baseball kicks off. Inserting Milone or someone else back in Santana's spot after a demotion, and knowing production is immediately necessary, could also be a tough ask.
Of course the Twins did the right thing this offseason in bringing in a proven veteran to bolster the staff. Santana sitting out though brings a lot of questions as a midseason addition, and the Twins are being forced to make a change that could definitely bring a result they weren't initially planning on.