- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
It’s worth documenting, again, all that Ervin Santana did well last year:
• Only 24 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted a lower number than his 3.24.
• Only 19 pitchers had a lower WHIP.
• His strikeout-walk ratio of 3.16 ranked 35th in the majors.
• Santana held opposing hitters to a .668 OPS, ranking 27th.
• He pitched 211 innings -- only 16 pitchers threw more in 2013.
So he had a really good season, bolstered by his sturdy reputation as being a good guy -- a positive clubhouse presence, someone invested in the esprit de corps.
But with three weeks to go before the Padres and Dodgers play the first game of the season in North America, Santana is still not signed. He is reportedly talking about a one-year deal with the Blue Jays or the Orioles or another team, and if he gets something in the range of $14 million, this will be about $100 million less than what club officials say the initial asking price for him was.
A lot of factors have contributed to him being in this position, from the concerns that some clubs have about whether his elbow will hold up through a multiyear deal, the fact that he’s tied to draft-pick compensation, and the reality that 17 months ago, the regard for Santana was so compromised that he was nearly non-tendered by the Angels.
But the essential truth is that his side completely misread the market, setting a price way too high at the outset and then reacting too slowly as available jobs and money evaporated.
The relationship between a player and his representation can be complicated, and in the end, there are almost always multiple versions of conversations and expectations. Sometimes the player can drive the discussion, sometimes it's player’s parents or spouse or most trusted friend, and sometimes it’s the agents. Sometimes it can be the union, depending on how assertive the player and the agent are. And the guess here is that whoever actually generated and drove the idea of Santana as a $112 million player isn’t going to jump up and down and brag about it today.
The fact is that nobody who takes a paycheck from a team saw Santana as a $100 million-plus pitcher. Nobody. The fact is that Santana should’ve gotten more than what he's expected to receive now, at least comfortably slotting into the group of pitchers like Ricky Nolasco, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson. Those are pitchers who have been good but have never been elite, as Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee have been.
The Royals wanted him back, but after their overtures in September were rebuffed, they took their available dollars and invested $32 million in Jason Vargas, who has never posted an ERA within half a run of what Santana did last year. Other teams checked in on Santana during the offseason, heard the asking price and moved on; when some doubled back, the numbers still hadn’t come down enough to coax an offer.
Speaking generally to USA Today, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin explained how the high price tags can affect interest. From Bob Nightengale’s piece:
Several GMs and executives say maybe it's time for these players to look in the mirror. They all rejected the $14.1 million qualifying offers from their original teams, and when they hit the market, some of the rumored contract requests scared teams.
"I do see these numbers that come out early that say, 'Oh, he's going to get $100 million,'" Brewers GM Doug Melvin says. "You read that stuff, and then you say, well, there's no sense in me even making a phone call if those are the numbers."
All agents want to push the numbers as high as they can, but some say privately that it is absolutely crucial to be tethered to an understanding of how the player is perceived in the market. One high-ranking executive said Friday that he is asked by agents all the time to offer assessments of what a fair deal for their clients would be -- like Rick Harrison from the TV show "Pawn Stars," who will call in an expert for an opinion before negotiating a price.
In the case of Santana, there was a total disconnect between the asking price and how the industry viewed him from the outset of the offseason.
Because of this, somebody is going to get him for a good price.
It’s worth documenting, again, all that Ervin Santana did well last year: • Only 24 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted a lower number than his 3.