Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Minnesota's Mediocre Rotation

Santana struggled with the Braves and will be a bust for the Twins (FoxSports)
The Minnesota Twins made a pair of questionable pitching acquisitions over the past week, inking Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million contract and extending Phil Hughes through 2019.

Why sign Santana, a below average pitcher in two of the past three years who just turned 32, for four years at nearly $14 million per (not including a $14 million option for the fifth year that vests if he completes 200 innings in 2018)? His numbers got worse after moving to the National League last year, when he was worth just 1.2 bWAR and posted his highest WHIP since 2010. He's durable, yes, and his velocity has held steady, but he's also on the wrong side of 30 and moving back to the American League. He's also been wildly inconsistent throughout his career, with as many seasons with an ERA over 4.25 (five) as below.

Hughes has been just as erratic, not to mention pretty terrible. Before last year, his career ERA was 4.53, his FIP was 4.31, and his WHIP was 1.32. His first seven seasons produced a meager 6.3 bWAR, an average of 0.9 per season. And yet, his extension will pay him $58 over the next five years, his age 29-33 seasons. That means the Twins expect him to be about twice as good as he has been (worth roughly two wins per year) in his early 30s, a risky move for someone only one year removed from a 4-14 season with a 5.19 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. Minnesota's putting a lot of stock in his 2014 and seemingly ignoring the seven years that preceded it, which obviously isn't wise.

The Twins were incredibly lucky with Hughes last year, getting a Cy Young-caliber year out of him when they had no reason to expect one (and at the modest price of $8 million to boot). They still had him under contract for this year and next, however, so there was no need to re-sign him now. Pitchers are incredibly fragile, and a lot could happen between now and the end of 2016. Even if he doesn't get hurt, he could still just as easily turn back into a pumpkin. When will teams learn that extending older players multiple years away from free agency is a terrible idea? (think the Phillies regret doing it with Ryan Howard?)

Hughes has had one great season and will probably never pitch that well again, as there's no way he comes close to replicating his 11.63 K/BB ratio Steamer expects his ERA to rise nearly half a run in 2015 and for him to be about half as valuable as he was last year). The best-case scenario for Santana is that he'll be a league average pitcher over 200 innings, but even that seems unlikely. Steamer projects his ERA to rise nearly half a run next year to 4.41, which would be very mediocre. Considering his ERA rose almost three-quarters of a run from 2013 to 2014 despite his shift to the National League, projecting further regression in his return to the American League seems reasonable.

Since last winter, Minnesota has committed 14 years (excluding options) and around $170 million to Hughes, Santana, and Ricky Nolasco. Investing so much in a trio of pedestrian pitchers, all of whom will be well into their thirties by the time their contracts expire, is going to make it difficult for the mid-market Twins to escape the cellar of the AL Central, where they've been comfortably residing for the past four years. It's hard enough to buy your way up the ladder with perennially thin free agent markets, and even harder still when your acquisitions weren't that good to begin with.

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