Braves injuries open up Santana derby

Ervin Santana delivers to a Houston Astros batter. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

It wasn’t long ago that Ervin Santana was apparently headed to the Toronto Blue Jays or the Baltimore Orioles. Three days and two Atlanta Braves injury scares later, the market for the free agent right-hander has opened right up.

The Braves can no longer be sure what Kris Medlen and perhaps Brandon Beachy will offer this year, so just like that Santana has at least one more seemingly legitimate suitor and the potential to make an impact on the American League East or National League East, depending on his decision.

It’s been a nightmarish couple of days for the Braves, who saw Medlen leave his start Sunday with a forearm strain. A recent MRI showed some ligament damage, and while the Braves continue seeking the opinion of medical experts, they are no doubt concerned about the prospect of losing Medlen, a Tommy John surgery veteran with a career ERA of 2.95 who projected as their No. 1 starter.

It got worse for the Braves when Beachy left his start Monday with “discomfort” and “inflammation” in his biceps.  Beachy, another veteran of Tommy John surgery, downplayed the soreness, insisting that he left the game for precautionary reasons. Even so, it’s a concern.

With their rotation in flux, the Braves have interest in Santana, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ESPN. The fly ball pitcher seems like a particularly good fit in Atlanta, since Turner Field has suppressed home run totals in each of the last three years. Pitching in the AL East isn’t so forgiving, and it’s not just because of designated hitters such as David Ortiz and Alfonso Soriano. Toronto’s Rogers Centre and Baltimore’s Camden Yards have both been homer-friendly parks in each of the last three years.

Santana may well decide to sign in the American League East regardless. He has had success in the AL before, and Blue Jays players are now actively encouraging him to sign in Toronto, according to FOX Sports.

The Blue Jays would project as a stronger team with Santana and are reportedly prepared to offer him a one-year contract in the $14 million range. But with the Braves and Minnesota Twins now pursuing Santana, it’s clear his market has expanded far beyond Toronto. After months of playing the waiting game, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has the chance to strike and add a pitcher at a bargain rate. Add Santana and the Blue Jays can compete. Miss out to the Orioles or even the Braves and it’s much harder to argue that Toronto can contend in baseball’s toughest division.

That leaves the question of when Santana will strike a deal and start training with his new team. From his standpoint it would make sense to wait to sign until after opening day. Doing so would prevent his new team from making him a qualifying offer following the 2014 season and ensure that he won’t be linked to draft pick compensation again in a year’s time (a player must spend the entire season with a team to be eligible for a qualifying offer).

Yet teams gain nothing in that scenario, which makes it easier to envision a deal during spring training. If Santana signs in the near future, he’ll have enough time to prepare for the season ahead, and his new team will be allowed to make him a qualifying offer next winter.

When Santana does decide, he’ll ease one team’s rotation concerns while leaving other clubs exposed. At this point he’s the only established free agent pitcher out there. So as the Braves, Blue Jays and Orioles can attest, Santana now has some leverage of his own after a winter spent waiting.

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