The American League Central has more than its fair share of pitching stars.
The Detroit Tigers have Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer; the Cleveland Indians have Corey Kluber; the Kansas City Royals have Danny Duffy and the Chicago White Sox have Jose Quintana.
In 2017, though, none of them has been the division’s best.
Instead, it has been Ervin Santana of the Minnesota Twins who looks like a Cy Young favorite.
Obviously, it is very early in the season, but the 34-year-old has been unhittable in his first four starts. After allowing 1 run in 6 innings against the Indians on Sunday, he’s now 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA. In 28 innings, he’s given up 2 runs on 9 hits and 9 walks while striking out 20.
There’s no way of knowing what that means. A year ago, the Tigers gave Jordan Zimmermann $110 million to provide a second top-tier starter alongside Verlander. When he went 5-0 with a 0.55 ERA in April, it appeared that he was going to make Detroiters forget all the high-level pitchers who had left the franchise — guys like Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello.
Instead, he spent the rest of the year battling nagging injuries, going from the disabled list to ineffective mound appearances and back again. In the season’s final five months, he was 4-7 with a 6.84 ERA that included a four-inning start as the Tigers fought for a wild-card spot on the last weekend of the season.
So the Twins can’t count on Santana to win 20 games, win the ERA title and lead them to an improbable postseason berth, but he’s not guaranteed to collapse. He’s coming off a four-season stretch where he has posted a 110 ERA+ and a 3.79 FIP for the Royals, Atlanta Braves and Twins. Since breaking in with the Anaheim Angels in 2005, he’s posted an ERA under 4.50 in 10 of 12 full seasons, and was an All-Star in 2008.
He’s just never had the huge seasons that would get him the recognition he deserves. He’s never won more than 17 games, and he’s spent the latter part of his career on bad teams. In 2013, he had a 3.24 ERA for the Royals, but only finished 9-10, and last season, he was 7-11 for the Twins despite a 3.38 ERA in 30 starts.
As Thursday proved, that could be a problem for him again in 2017. He was great for 6 innings against the Indians, and left the game after 113 pitches with a 2-1 lead. Instead of getting his fourth straight win, though, he could only sit and watch as the Minnesota bullpen allowed 5 runs on 7 hits in the last 3 innings. At 7-8, the Twins are only a game behind Indians and Tigers (both 8-7), but it is hard to imagine Paul Molitor’s young team hanging around with the defending American League champions and Detroit’s $200 million payroll.
Of course, Santana might not finish the season in the Twin Cities. He’s making $13.5 million this season and the same amount next year, and only has a $1 million buyout in 2019. If he’s still pitching well in the summer, Minnesota can move him to a contender and add more bodies to a strong farm system.
In the long run, that’s where he has the most value for the Twins. They don’t need to pay $27 million to a pitcher in his mid-30s over the next two seasons, especially as they undergo a rebuilding process. What they need is more prospects, and if Santana can deliver those at the trade deadline, he’ll have earned every dollar he’s gotten.