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Santana is too valuable a commodity for Royals to miss opportunity

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, July 23, 2013, at 9:56 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, August 1, 2013, at 12:31 p.m.

Ervin Santana looks up from his phone and greets you with a smile. Surely, he knows what you’re thinking. You know he knows. You ask, anyway.

Yes, he says, of course he knows that the trade deadline is next week. The Royals’ pitcher knows he is the best starter available as a short-term rental for a contender. He also knows he has no control over what happens so he won’t worry about it.

To drive home the point, he smiles again. Shrugs his shoulders. What’s he supposed to do?

“I like it here,” he says. “But if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I have no idea.”

Nobody does, really. But Santana is the centerpiece of another critical decision facing the Royals and general manager Dayton Moore. One more piece of evidence about Moore’s decision-making process will be added to the pile. A chunk of the franchise’s future and the jobs of Moore and others will someday, to some degree, be connected back to this moment.

Santana is scheduled for what might be his last start for the Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday. This might be his last start for the Royals, period. He has a 3.18 ERA while allowing just a smidgen more than one baserunner per inning and that’s the kind of guy who can not only push a team into the playoffs, but help that team in the playoffs.

The Royals, losing grip on what should be a better season so far, have an opportunity to get better here. An important opportunity. The kind that teams like the Royals can’t afford to pass up. Whiff here, and the case against Moore only grows more imposing.

Internally, Royals executives are weighing the value of a dozen or so more starts from Santana against the return he would bring in a trade. Perhaps similar to what the Rangers gave up this week for starting pitcher Matt Garza.

There are a million variables here — the Rangers are thought by many to be the most zealous pursuer of starting pitching, while others think a market will materialize as the deadline approaches — but a good starting point is what the Cubs got for Garza, 6-1 with a 3.17 ERA:

A package of prospects highlighted by pitcher C.J. Edwards, complemented by corner infielder Mike Olt, pitcher Justin Grimm and the inevitable player to be named later.

Olt was Baseball America’s No. 22 prospect coming into the year, but he’s also about to turn 25 and his major-league experience consists of a .152 batting average in 16 games. Edwards is a Class A prospect thought by some scouts to project as a No. 3 starter. Grimm has a career 6.73 ERA in 103 big-league innings.

Moore caused a temporary freakout from part of the fan base when he said last week the team would “ keep pushing.” Moore has talked extensively about creating a winning environment, especially with the team’s younger players, and there is a fear from some fans this meant the team would be willing to sacrifice the future to go .500 this year.

There are strong indications from the front office that this isn’t true, that while they think it’s important to give their younger players games with some meaning, they won’t pass up a deal that makes them better in 2014 just to win an extra game or two in 2013.

The Royals’ options are fairly clear, and somewhat limited. They can work on a long-term deal with Santana (he said he’d be open to it), knowing the success rate for such contracts with starting pitchers is horrid. They can make a qualifying offer (one year for about $13 million) and either have him again next season or receive a compensation draft pick between the first and second round.

Or they can trade him now, spend the money this winter on someone else, save about $4 million in salary this season and get pieces that will help next year.

It’s hard to imagine the Royals couldn’t get more for Santana than a draft pick in the 30s, and there is too much at stake for them to not explore every opportunity. They have a piece that would upgrade every contender in baseball.

This has been a disappointing season. The Royals would do well to get something to feel good about in the future.

Besides, trading Santana now doesn’t mean the Royals can’t sign him this winter. It would be a rare, but not unprecedented move.

One Santana said he would be open to, no matter what happens in a critical week for the future of the Royals, Moore and so many others.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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