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Cincinnati Reds free agent target: RHP Ervin Santana

He’ll turn 36 in a week. Is there anything left in his tank?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

J.A. Happ just turned 36 years old, is currently a free agent, and is coming off a career renaissance in his mid 30’s that has him one of the more sought after free agent pitchers on the market this winter. Prior to a 2018 season that saw him split time with both the Blue Jays and New York Yankees thanks to a mid-year trade, the production he gave Toronto 2016-2017 seasons was particularly impressive: 340.1 IP, 2.88 K/BB, 131 ERA+, 3.33 ERA, 8.1 total bWAR.

So, despite entering his age-36 season, MLB Trade Rumors tabbed him to land a 3-year, $48 million contract this winter, ranking him as the #9 overall free agent on the market. The Cincinnati Reds certainly have taken notice, too, as MLB Network’s Jon Morosi relayed shortly after the end of the World Series.

For you visual learners out there (like me), I’m going to list Happ’s 2016-2017 numbers again here since they just so happen to look damn similar to another free agent pitcher - Ervin Santana - whose name has barely been whispered this winter.

J.A. Happ, 2016-2017 (age 33-34 seasons): 340.1 IP, 2.88 K/BB, 131 ERA+, 3.33 ERA, 8.1 bWAR

Ervin Santana, 2016-2017 (age 33-34 seasons): 392.2 IP, 2.77 K/BB, 130 ERA+, 3.32 ERA, 8.5 bWAR

While Happ will seemingly have his pick of teams this winter - our friends at Pinstripe Alley think a reunion with the Yankees would be a good fit - a quick check of Santana rumors at MLBTR reveals there has been absolutely nothing connected to him since his 2019 option was bought out by the Minnesota Twins on October 30th for a cool $1 million.

Of course, the 2018 season matters, and matters a ton - especially for players set to pitch at 36 years old in 2019. Happ turned in yet another quality campaign in 2018, his 177.2 total IP of 117 ERA+ ball good for a collective 3.3 bWAR. Santana, meanwhile, had surgery to remove calcium deposits from the middle finger on his pitching hand in February of 2018, saw his season debut pushed to late July, and made just 5 awful starts (8.03 ERA, 7.94 FIP) before being shut down for good in mid August - pretty much the most disastrous way to re-enter free agency imaginable.

Prior to Santana’s 2018 disaster, he and Happ had actually pitched rather similarly in recent seasons in terms of batted-ball data behind their already similar results. Happ, in his career, is the owner of a 40.1% ground-ball rate and 39.7% fly-ball rate, for instance, while Santana owns a nearly identical 40.2% ground-ball rate and 39.9% fly-ball rate. Both also rely on a trio of pitches - fastball, slider, and change - with Happ’s fastball averaging an even 92.0 mph in 2018 while Santana, prior to 2018, had averaged 92.7 mph and 92.9 mph in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The abbreviated finger-related disaster that was 2018 for Santana, however, saw his velocity plummet, as each of his three main pitches saw average velocity drops of over 3 mph, and his overall weighted pitch values went from solidly positive to negative across the board. Santana, it’s worth noting, has led all MLB pitchers in wSL since his big league debut in 2005, which is a measure of how many total runs pitchers have saved on their slider. And, in an effort to show that’s not a number that was influenced too heavily by his early career, his 21.9 wSL ranked 3rd in all MLB in the 2017 season alone, his last prior to the recurring finger issue.

The question, of course, is whether or not Santana is at all recovered from the issue that plagued him for most of the entire calendar year, since that will ultimately impact whether any team gives him anything close to a guarantee for 2019 at his age. Considering there was distinct surgery, a lengthy 12 week rehab, and consistent recurrence of the pain that caused the initial diagnosis even after the surgery, there’s definitely some risk that it could be a longer-term problem down the road even if he appears 100% at any point this winter, too.

My best guess is that we’ll see little to no action on Santana up until a point where he throws in some form of a showcase, one that I would hope like hell would include representatives from the Reds there watching. Santana and Happ, despite their similarities, are far from one-for-one comps, but the willingness for teams to potentially dole out ~$50 million guaranteed and a full 3-year contract to Happ at 36 while Santana remains completely on the periphery for now makes me wonder if there isn’t a chance for a buy-low deal for Ervin, which is exactly what I’d like to see the Reds pursue in their quest to get the pitching. Obviously, if Santana fails to prove he’s healthy, or if a potential showcase reveals a maintained loss of velocity, that’s not an avenue I’d continue to pursue, but there is certainly a good chance that there’s more left in Santana if he can prove 2018’s injury woes were an isolated, one-time dilemma.