It isn’t a foregone conclusion, Royals officials insist amid meetings this week at their year-round desert complex, that veteran right-hander Ervin Santana is heading elsewhere in the free-agent market.
“Look at what happened last year with Kyle Lohse,” one top club official said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Remember Lohse? A year ago, he projected as one of the top names on the free-agent market after going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 33 starts for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Royals had Lohse, along with Detroit right-hander Anibal Sanchez, at the top of their early offseason wish list in their quest to improve their rotation.
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Analysts projected a five-year deal for Lohse, 33 at the time, ranging in value from $75 million-$90 million. But the Cardinals tendered a one-year qualifying offer to Lohse, which further upped the price to the loss of a top draft pick.
Other clubs, it turned out, didn’t want to lose that draft pick — a first-round pick for teams not selecting in the top 10; a second-round pick for those possessing a top-10 pick.
The Royals were among the teams that balked at the price of surrendering their first pick and turned their attention elsewhere. Those efforts produced the trades that subsequently netted Santana and James Shields.
The Cardinals’ qualifying offer torpedoed the market last winter for Lohse, and they effectively marooned him by making it clear they didn’t really want him back for more than a year; their offer was a quest for compensation.
Lohse remained unsigned, as a result, until late March when, with no apparent viable alternative, he agreed to a three-year deal with Milwaukee for $33 million.
Could the same trap snare Santana?
Royals general manager Dayton Moore is already on record as saying Santana will get a qualifying offer — expected this year to be around $14 million. That is the average of the game’s top 125 salaries.
There is one key difference, though.
Unlike the Cardinals with Lohse, the Royals want to keep Santana who, at age 30, compiled a 3.24 ERA in 32 starts (which belied a 9-10 record) after arriving in an offseason trade with the Angels.
“We’re going to do the best we can to put as many quality guys as we can in that rotation,” Moore said. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of really good internal options.
“We’re really proud of what Ervin did for us, and we’re going to be excited to see if we can get him under contract. But we’ve got to prepare for all different scenarios. That’s what Erv is doing as well.”
Moore hedges when asked whether the club has a ceiling in negotiations with Santana. Some of that is a hesitation to tip a negotiating hand in public, but the Royals also appear truly interested in gauging the market.
Even so, they appear unlikely, at this point, to go beyond a three-year deal. And it is the length of the deal, rather than the dollars-per-year, that looms as the more-likely breaking point.
For his part, Santana has insisted all along that he is open to remaining with the Royals.
“I like it (here) a lot,” he said late in the season. “Great people. Great teammates. The training staff is incredible. It’s a good town for baseball. There’s not much to do except focus on baseball. That’s very good.”
The qualifying offer, which must be made within five days after the World Series ends, doesn’t preclude the Royals from trying to reach a multiyear agreement with Santana.
And even if Santana rejects the qualifying offer, it doesn’t prevent him from continuing to negotiate with the Royals. He has seven days, after getting the offer, to accept or reject it. It would be stunning if he accepts it.
All the qualifying offer does, really, is provide the Royals with a compensatory draft pick if Santana signs elsewhere and make the price higher, via the loss of a draft pick, for any club that signs him.
Will that prove, as it did with Lohse, too high a cost?
“There’s a lot of (free-agent) pitchers out there this winter,” one official from a rival club said. “They might not be as good (as Santana), but they won’t cost you a draft pick.”