The Orioles’ agreement with former Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana is a low risk, high reward, move by General Manager Dan Duquette. The oft-injured 34-year-old lefty inked a one-year, $3 million minor-league contract in an attempt to rejuvenate his career. Following the signings of Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez, this contract presents an opportunity for Santana to prove that he is still a quality major leaguer, and also gives the Orioles another potential impact pitcher (either out of the rotation or the bullpen).
Santana is coming off his second shoulder surgery and hasn’t pitched since 2012 for the New York Mets where he went 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA. Santana’s injury prevented him from playing in the 2013 season and has reportedly resulted in a diminished fastball. Reports indicated that his fastball averaged in the high 70 MPH range at a workout for team officials, while topping out at 83 MPH. Though he is not completely recovered from his surgery, it is possible that his fastball at least partially returns (likely in the mid 80 MPH range). Where his changeup is his signature pitch, it is his fastball which sets up the rest of his repertoire.
It is unlikely that Santana figures to be the dominant pitcher he once was, but he still brings plenty of experience and other possibilities to the Orioles. Any Cy Young pitcher will be able to help a younger core of pitchers (which the Orioles have), and Santana’s reputation as a clubhouse leader figures to play into that. Duquette and manager Buck Showalter know as well as anybody that a player like Santana, who may not be the caliber player he once was, still has value off the field.
In addition to his clubhouse presence, the Orioles also got themselves a darned smart pitcher. If there is one pitcher in the league who could figure out ways to prevent runs with an 80 MPH fastball (excluding knuckleballers, of course), it is Santana. Aside from his deadly changeup, Santana knows how to outsmart hitters with his entire arsenal of pitches. Besides his diminished fastball, there is one other aspect that may limit Santana in his comeback attempt: his durability.
Santana averaged 5.6 innings per start in 2012 in his 21 games. Given that this occurred before his second surgery, and that he is now two years older, Santana is unlikely to be an innings eater. It is for these reasons that Santana may likely be another candidate for the Orioles to pitch out of the bullpen. Between Brian Matusz, Troy Patton, and T.J. McFarland, the Orioles have an abundance of the LHP, long relief, types of pitchers. However, relievers can fall off in just a season, or get hurt, which would make Santana that much more valuable. Santana fits the mold of a lefty specialist in his later years. If the Orioles find themselves in a tough jam with LHBs due up, Santana has the pitches and the grit for Showalter to call on him. A spot start here and there also is not out of the realm of possibilities.
Santana’s signing with the Orioles is only significant because of the pitcher he used to be. The Orioles are paying an experienced veteran pitcher with a chip on his shoulder (hopefully metaphorically, rather than literally) to do anything he can to be of use to the Orioles, both on and off the field. If his comeback falls short in Norfolk, Santana or the Orioles will likely end the professional relationship and his lasting contribution in Baltimore will be his influence on the Orioles’ young core of players, which is fine.