Welcome to One Last Move, where our writers pitch a move to the Mets that would close out their offseason and make the team better in 2019.
Generally speaking, Brodie Van Wagenen has done a good job in his first offseason as GM. He turned prospects into maybe the best cost-controlled reliever (and maybe best without that modifier too) in baseball and an all-time great second baseman. He signed utilityman Jed Lowrie. The bullpen was further bolstered by Justin Wilson and the return of Jeurys Familia. Wilson Ramos will be the Mets new starting catcher. These are all probably good things.
Of course, there is always more the team could do. And while yes, I do mean “sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado,” there’s also another spot that could be bolstered on the cheap: the starting rotation, especially the number five spot. Please, anything to get Jason Vargas out of the regular rotation.
My first suggestion for this was Jeremey Hellickson, who was re-signed by the Nationals just an hour and a half before that post was going to go live. So instead, I’ll turn my eyes to someone else:
Tyson Ross Derek Holland Trevor Cahill um Ervin Santana! Yeah, Santana would do. Really, almost anyone would, because they wouldn’t be Jason Vargas.
Yes, that’s a little harsh. The Mets’ hipster-in-chief could be a very nice guy but, like Jay Bruce, that isn’t enough to blot out his problematic stickiness on the roster. Signing a guy like Santana would allow the Mets to bump Vargas in the roster so that they at least don’t pencil him in for 20ish starts from the beginning.
At 36-years old, obviously Santana’s best days are behind him. Vargas is actually a hair younger than Santana, and common thought would expect you to look for a younger replacement. But we’re talking about a one-year deal, max two, to try and take advantage of a contention window Van Wagenen is trying to force open.
However, he would provide one thing Vargas doesn’t: the ability to eat innings.
While he wouldn’t have to opportunity to do so as much on a National League team (unless the league really does decide to pass a universal DH rule a week before Spring Training), and the toll of the years and innings on his stamina, Santana has had a penchant for pitching deep into games. In 2017 he led the league with five complete games, three of them shutouts. Over his career (not counting 2018), he has averaged about 6.1 innings per start.
Your fifth starter should be able to eat innings for you, and be able to do so with hopefully some effectiveness. Over his last three full seasons, Santana has hung right around that 6.1 innings per start mark while posting a 3.47 ERA.
Jason Vargas, the man he would be replacing, was nowhere near that effective as a Met last season. He averaged about 4.2 innings per start in 2018 and posted a 5.77 ERA. And while some are taking his late-season “surge” at face value—he had a 2.56 ERA over his final seven starts—I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t: he gave up six home runs in that time but only 11 total earned runs. That luck will dry out real quick, even pitching in the weird physics anomaly that is Citi Field.
The biggest red flag for Santana was that he missed all of 2018 dealing with a finger injury, a fair concern. An almost prohibitive one, in fact, when considering an older major leaguer. However, it’s less concerning than a knee or elbow or shoulder injury. While he was expected to play in a winter league to make up for lost time, I can’t find anything saying he actually did.
Since his last season was a wash—Santana made just five starts—let’s look back a little farther, specifically his 2016 and 2017 seasons. By many measures—fWAR, bWAR and ERA+, for example—they were some of the best seasons of his career, surprising at ages 33 and 34. Over those two seasons, he had a 3.32 ERA and had 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings. His FIP was 4.16, thanks in large part to the fact that he gave up 31 home runs in 2017.
The key for Santana, like basically any pitcher, is remaining healthy. In every season that he has made 30 starts except for two he has posted an at least league-average ERA. One of the times he didn’t, in 2014 (also his lone year in the National League, with the Braves) when he had an ERA of 3.95 (ERA- of 108), he was a bit unlucky, posting a FIP of 3.39.
By signing Santana—who should be able to come on a relatively cheap deal given his age and recent injury—the Mets could shuffle Vargas to the bullpen while also giving said bullpen some lighter days by not having to put out a fire like they did almost every time Vargas pitches. In return, maybe they would blow less of Jacob deGrom’s starts. Signing Ervin Santana could be a version of trickle down that actually works.
And hey, if that all doesn’t sell the Mets on him, this should: he made the 2017 All-Star Game, just like Vargas. We know they love their former All-Stars.