Panic isn’t quite the right word to describe the reaction of Twins fans Tuesday to the news the Ervin Santana, their best and most dependable starting pitcher in each of the last two seasons, underwent a procedure on his right middle finger that figures to sideline him for roughly the first month of the 2018 season.
Concern, though? Yes, there was concern. This offseason has fueled visions of adding to the rotation, not subtracting. And now here we are, less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers for the start of spring training, and the Twins are down their version of an ace without another one on the way.
If we can link these two things together, this question comes into play: Should Santana’s injury create more of a sense of urgency for the Twins to make a move in free agency?
The answer is yes, though maybe not for the reason you think.
Suggesting the free agent pitching market is moving at a glacial pace would be an insult to the relatively swift speed of glaciers. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Twins.
More immediate dives into free agency, before the market has been set, do not tend to end well. This is just one example, but the pitching-desperate Twins gave Ricky Nolasco a four-year, $49 million contract in late November of 2013. That was a different market in a different year, but it shows what can happen when a team reaches too soon for a non-ace.
The Twins can afford to be patient still because none of the dominoes are falling in a very strange offseason. “We think there are a number of guys in that mix who can help us,” Twins boss Derek Falvey said last week when I chatted with him on radio row at the Super Bowl. “Ultimately we’ll see where things shake out.”
The Twins have signed three relief pitches as well as Michael Pineda, a starter recovering from Tommy John surgery who projects in the rotation in 2019 “and maybe the bullpen at the end of this year,” Falvey said.
To that end, Falvey said he feels “really good certainly about what we’ve done in the bullpen.”
The rotation, though, needs work. And here’s where Santana comes into play.
His injury is short-term enough that it shouldn’t impact how the Twins should be approaching things. Even if Santana is able to duplicate his wonderful 2017 season, his absence from a handful of starts is probably going to cost the Twins less than one win in 2018. That’s not a reason to panic.
His absence, though, underscores the fragility of the rotation as it currently stands. Any sort of long-term injury to Santana or Jose Berrios would put the Twins in a real bind if they have any hopes of duplicating and hopefully surpassing last year’s 85 wins and Wild Card berth. The timing of this injury, too, will test the Twins’ depth in ways it might not have later in the year.
Falvey said Trevor May, who had worked primarily in the bullpen in recent years before his own Tommy John surgery last March, is being prepared as a starting pitcher this season but that the hope is “maybe by (the month of) May he’s pitching for us” because he’s still rehabbing to gain strength.
Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero are minor league options, but as Falvey noted, “They’re part of a great group for us to bring in and see where they are (in spring training). … They didn’t get much Tripe-A time. We don’t want to rush those guys. But young guys surprise us all the time. If they’re ready, we will go get them.”
Long story short: The Twins needed to add starting pitchers even before Santana’s short-term injury. Knowing they’ll be without him for the first month or so of the season shouldn’t impact how they proceed in offering big money multi-year contracts to the frontline pitchers still out there like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.
But it should reinforce how shaky their pitching depth already was, and how bad things could be if they don’t make at least one move.
“We know we can add in that space, and I feel confident that we have the opportunity to continue to bring in another set of names,” Falvey said of adding starting pitchers, “whether it’s to compete for one of those rotation spots or to solidify one of those spots.”