Blue Jays miss out on another pitcher, Ervin Santana signs with Braves

Call it another swing and a miss for Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays.

On Wednesday, free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana signed a one-year, $14.1 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. Santana was one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason and had been targeted by the Blue Jays. Reports as recently as Saturday said Santana was on the cusp of signing with the team.

Instead the right-hander is heading to Atlanta to help out a playoff contender that has had its starting rotation torn apart by recent injuries. The signing has to sting a bit for Anthopoulos, the Toronto general manager.

Anthopoulos has said all the right things this offseason about the team and his decision to make very few changes to a team that won just 74 games last season. He is confident the team can rebound simply by staying healthy and having more depth. But there’s an obvious need for starting pitching on this team. Last year the Blue Jays had one of the worst pitching staffs in the league. They ranked 25th in ERA, 28th in quality starts, 25th in WHIP, 22nd in opponent batting average, and surrendered the second most home runs.

Santana wasn’t going to fix those problems single handedly. He went 9-10 with the Kansas City Royals last year with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 211 innings. He’s an above average, durable pitcher but hardly a perennial All Star. But he certainly would have helped the Blue Jays, especially on a one-year deal, and would have been a tangible upgrade over whoever is destined for the back end of the rotation. The Blue Jays are built to be competitive now but have fallen way behind in the American League East.

As it stands, the top of the Blue Jays’ rotation will be R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow. Santana would have been a fine addition to that core group and added much needed depth. Santana has pitched at least 200 innings in three of the last four years. Instead, the fourth-and-fifth spots in the rotation will go to some combination of JA Happ, Drew Hutchison, Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, Dustin McGowan, or – gasp – Ricky Romero. It’s worth noting the Blue Jays have used at least 12 different starting pitchers in each of the last two seasons, in part due to injuries but also due to ineffectiveness.

What remains slightly uncertain is whether Anthopoulos was unable or unwilling to sign Santana. There was draft-pick compensation attached to the free agent which may have led to him signing so late. But Anthopoulos insisted that wasn’t an issue, that they nearly had a deal, and that the Blue Jays’ ownership group didn’t put any financial restraints on him. Anthopoulos addressed reporters in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday.

“I think what I’ll say is from what I was told he wanted to pitch in the NL. Couldn’t compete with it. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t years. He had a strong desire to pitch in the NL and there was no way to compete with that. Wish him the best, obviously I’m sure us and other clubs would have loved to have had him but we’re going to move on.”

Anthopoulos is well aware that he built a team with a short window of opportunity and that fans are getting restless.

“I understand because of the acquisitions we made last year that that term [standing pat] has been thrown around. I don’t necessarily believe in it. I just think it points to it being all about one year and it’s not, obviously. We’re trying to win on a perennial basis and things like that. I understand last offseason was so active and we haven’t been nearly as active. That being said, we believe a big part of our lack of success last season was we didn’t have guys on the field.

“We like the talent we have, I think that goes without saying. But there’s obviously a lack of experience and that’s where you’d love to have some experience and you can have that depth and you can send some guys down on options. Ultimately if we have to go with some of the inexperienced guys that have talent to do well, we’re prepared to do that. But clearly with our pursuit of a guy like Santana, adding some more experience can’t hurt, especially because we viewed him as an impact starter.”

The Blue Jays’ only significant addition this offseason was adding catcher Dioner Navarro and trading J.P. Arencibia. Santana isn’t the first pitcher to escape Anthopoulos’ grasp, either. The Blue Jays missed out on free agents big (Ubaldo Jimenez) and small (Phil Hughes), weren’t able to sign Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, and were rumored to be in trade talks with the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija that fizzled out. Santana was there for the taking and it appears the Blue Jays sat on their hands for too long, while the Braves acted.

A year after the Blue Jays made a huge splash to completely revamp their roster, and earn a lot of goodwill with fans, it will be interesting to see if the Rogers Centre is still full by July. If fans are still coming in droves, will it be with torches and pitchforks in hand?