The Twins will need a new Opening Day starting pitcher. Derek Falvey says they are still hopeful of getting one.
Ervin Santana, the All-Star at the top of the rotation, will miss the start of the 2018 season, the Twins announced Tuesday, after undergoing surgery on the middle finger of his pitching hand. Santana, 35, will be sidelined for 10-12 weeks, the team said, putting the righthander’s return sometime in mid- to late April.
“If this had come up during the season, maybe you take care of it with an injection and a [disabled list] stint and he pitches through it,” said Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “But coming right now, at the start of the season, it made a lot more sense to get it taken care of and put it behind him.”
Santana had the surgery, a “capsular release/debridement procedure,” essentially cleaning out some calcification built up during his 13-year major league career, Falvey said. The procedure was performed by Dr. Charles Melone, according to the Twins’ announcement, Tuesday in New York City, exactly one week before pitchers and catchers are to report to camp in Fort Myers, Fla.
Santana should be able to throw again in March, and the Twins anticipate him making his 2018 debut a few weeks after Opening Day, Falvey said, certainly by May 1. “It wasn’t a ligament, fortunately,” Falvey said, “so it’s just a matter of letting it heal and then strengthening his fingers again.”
Santana, 16-8 with a 3.28 ERA in 2017, has occasionally felt pain in that finger in the past, and he underwent X-rays and a magnetic resonance imaging exam at the end of last season. When no ligament damage was found, Santana was given an injection in hopes a surgical correction could be avoided.
But as he began throwing bullpen sessions last month in preparation for spring training, the pain recurred.
“He felt good playing catch, long-toss. When he started throwing his slider, though, it acted up,” Falvey said. “Right away, we said, ‘Let’s get it looked at again, and the doctors felt this was the best course of action.”
Falvey has said all winter that acquiring another established starting pitcher would be the best course of action for the Twins, whose rotation was one of the worst in the AL last year, and Santana’s injury just increases the urgency to make a trade or sign a free agent. Trouble is, the free-agent market is all but frozen as players seek larger offers than they have received thus far, and such high-profile starters as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb remain unsigned.
“We’ve been on the record that we want to add to our pitching group, and we’re still on that path. We’re certainly prepared to add another arm, and maybe another one after that,” Falvey said. “We’re having active conversations with multiple people every day, and we’ve remained aggressive on both fronts. I’m still confident we can get something done.”
The Twins will bring back Jose Berrios — the most likely Opening Day starter in Santana’s absence — Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia to a projected rotation; those three, plus Santana, are the only Twins to start more than 20 games last summer. Also in the mix are Phil Hughes, who started nine games before a season-ending surgery, and Trevor May, who missed all of 2017 after elbow surgery.
Santana, entering his fourth season with the Twins, led the AL in complete games (five) and shutouts (three) last summer, and started the Twins’ wild-card playoff loss to the Yankees, pitching only two innings. If Santana was bothered by his middle finger during that postseason start, he didn’t mention it, Falvey said, and it didn’t affect his velocity or pitch mix.
“Like most players, he was probably dealing with some issues toward the back end of the year,” Falvey said. “If there was some soreness, Ervin is someone who wouldn’t let on that it was bothering him. There’s no indication it was an issue.”
Santana’s contract could be an issue, though. He will earn $13.5 million this season, and his contract becomes guaranteed for $14 million in 2019 if he pitches 200 innings this summer — far more unlikely now that he will miss his first few starts. If he falls short of that benchmark — he pitched 211 innings last season, starting 33 games — the Twins can still trigger the option for 2019, or pay a $1 million buyout.