You get the impression that Ervin Santana was waiting for this to happen.
Not this specifically, maybe. Santana, 31, had no way of knowing that with the Braves' top-of-the-rotation starter Mike Minor still on the shelf and Brandon Beachy still battling the elbow injuries that have sidelined him for almost two years now, the Braves would also lose starter Kris Medlen to what's looking more and more like a second Tommy John surgery. But in the general sense, and given a choice between a one-year deal with either the Orioles or the Blue Jays, Santana was wise to sleep on the offers for a few days to see if a contender would get desperate enough to match them. He ended up accepting a one-year, $14.1 million deal.
Before the Braves' unfortunate injuries at the beginning of the week (less than 24 hours after the Medlen injury last Sunday, Beachy was removed early from a spring training game with tightness in his own throwing elbow), the best candidate for Santana's services outside the AL East appeared to be the Phillies, who had just received word that Cole Hamels' dead shoulder may set him back at least long enough to miss the first month of the season. Philadelphia's in the same boat as Toronto and Baltimore, though -- on the outside of a playoff spot looking in.
That's not a problem in Atlanta, who was a heavy favorite for first wild card in the National League, until Medlen's elbow injury. Before the Santana signing, the worst-case scenario for Atlanta going into the season was not only Medlen being out indefinitely, but both Minor and Beachy being sidelined for the foreseeable future with their own injury problems. Considering we're nearly halfway through March without Minor appearing in any games so far, it's likely he'll need some time in extended spring training before he can join the major-league team, even if there aren't any more serious underlying issues. In that scenario, the rotation would be headlined by offseason-extension recipient Julio Teheran and second-year starter Alex Wood -- the same Alex Wood who was converted to relief and then essentially disappeared at the end of last season, whether due to a front-office fiat regarding his innings pitched or the preferences of manager Fredi Gonzalez.
The No. 3 starter who would benefit from Woods' shelving: veteran starter and current non-roster invitee Freddy Garcia, who the Braves amazingly pitched in an elimination game against the Dodgers last October, showing the depth of Gonzalez's commitment to him. The Braves lost that game, but not because of Garcia's pitching -- he went six innings and allowed only two runs against one of the hottest offenses in baseball. Clearly, the good feelings for Garcia among Braves management continue, but just as clearly it would be absolutely insane for a playoff team to go into the season with a 37-year-old NRI guy as their third starter.
Without acquiring another arm, both David Hale and Aaron Northcraft, ageds 26 and 23, respectively, may have been pressed into the back end of the rotation until someone got healthy. Either could turn out to be decent enough major-league pitchers -- Hale has more upside in that regard, and is the Braves No. 7 prospect this year by Baseball America's rankings -- but outside of Garcia (whose best days are far behind him), a rotation with Teheran, Wood, Hale and Northcraft has fewer than 300 combined innings of major-league experience. The Braves rotation going into the season, then, was pretty dire until Wednesday morning.
Santana doesn't fix all their woes -- no one pitcher could -- but he makes the situation a lot more tenable. He bumps Garcia down to the fourth spot or the fifth -- if Minor or Beachy is in good enough shape to start the season. And if both of those guys make it out of camp, a rotation of Santana/Minor/Teheran/Wood/Beachy doesn't look bad. If you're a person who believes both 2013 Ervin Santana and 2013 Kris Medlen were pitching at their true talent levels, Santana is not strictly speaking such a downgrade from Medlen: He pitched 211 innings of 127 ERA+ ball last year compared to Medlen's 197 IP, 124 ERA+ performance. If Santana has a year like he did last year, the Braves rotation shouldn't miss a step (at least not due to Medlen's absence).
He'll cost the Braves enough to raise their payroll to the $105 million range -- higher than it's been since 2003 -- but he could be a difference-maker in the playoff race. He'll also cost Atlanta its first-round draft pick in June's amateur draft, but that's not as bad as it could be -- Atlanta was picking at the end of the first round already and has another pick a few spots later in the first supplemental round that it was given when the Yankees signed Brian McCann.
In the end, it's likely that no one is totally happy with the arrangement. Santana would have preferred a four- or five-year deal, and the Braves would have preferred to stay within budget, keep their first-round pick and not lose another valuable starter to injury. But everyone should be satisfied with their next best options: Santana gets to pitch at the top of the rotation for a contender and test the waters again next offseason with an even higher qualifying offer, while the Braves are no longer in danger of seeing their playoff dreams slip away from them before the season even begins. In the end, that's pretty much all anyone can really ask for.