SARASOTA, Fla. – Several questions remain as to when and how — or even if — two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana will help the Orioles, but the club believes signing him is worth the chance and could end up paying dividends down the stretch.
The Orioles finalized a minor league deal Tuesday with Santana, who will turn 35 next week. The lefty would earn $3 million if the major league club purchases his contract, and the deal includes incentives for days on the major league roster and games started.
Santana, who was once one of the top pitchers in the game, has appeared in just 21 games since the end of the 2010 season. He missed all of last season and is still rehabilitating from his second shoulder surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Tuesday that a "reasonable timeframe" for when Santana should be able to return is June 1.
"Johan Santana is an elite pitcher, and he's determined to come back and pitch and he'd like to pitch at a high level," Duquette said. We've been working on this for a while. … We don't know how long he can pitch, but we think he'll be able to come back and pitch, and he's already shown that he's a highly skilled pitcher, so he should be able to give us some good innings."
Santana's deal includes an invitation to major league spring training, so even though it is several months before he returns, he can resume his rehabilitation with the major league training staff. He knows Orioles assistant athletic trainer Chris Correnti well from their days together with the New York Mets from 2008 through 2010, and Duquette said Santana has remained in touch with Correnti over the course of his recovery.
Whether the club uses Santana as a starter or reliever depends on how he throws and how his velocity is once he is healthy, Duquette said, but it is likely the Orioles initially test him as a starter.
Orioles scout Bruce Kison saw Santana throw in front of several other teams last week in Fort Myers, where Santana lives, and even though his fastball topped out at just 81 mph during that bullpen session, the club was encouraged enough to sign him.
"He can be effective, because he has deception to his pitches and he has outstanding control," Duquette said. "Anyone who has pitched at the level he's pitched at has significant skills, and the skills go beyond the velocity. He was a several-time All-Star. He also won the Gold Glove and he's pitched very, very well in the playoffs and that speaks to his high skill level."
Santana won American League Cy Young Awards in 2004 and 2006 while pitching for the Minnesota Twins and finished in the top six in Cy Young voting four other times. He posted five straight seasons over 219 or more innings from 2004 to 2008, going 86-40 with a 2.82 ERA over that span.
The Orioles don't expect him to return to that form, but if he can help the team in the second half in any capacity, he would be a valuable addition.
"We plan on being in it thick or thin when September or August roll around," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "He's been there, so his talent can definitely help us. … And I foresee in a perfect world, you can see him coming in an offer us seven to 10 to 12 starts in the second half of the season, and that could be the edge we need. I like it. Good signing."
As the Boston Red Sox general manager, Duquette signed right-hander Bret Saberhagen when he was coming off a similar surgery in 1997. Saberhagen struggled in his initial return from anterior capsule surgery — Dr. David Altcheck performed the procedures on both Santana and Saberhagen — but went 25-14 with Boston over the next two seasons.
With 139 career wins, Santana is the second-winningest Venezuelan-born pitcher in baseball history, trailing only former Oriole Freddy Garcia (156 wins).
While Santana continues his rehab, he will be making a minor league salary, but he's already receiving $5.5 million from the New York Mets as part of their 2014 buyout to conclude his six-year, $137.5-million deal.
"It's a long season and depth is always a key to it," Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said. "You want everybody to stay healthy through a season, but to get 25 guys to stay healthy for 162 games, it's pretty damn hard to do, and that's why we need depth. I'm assuming that's what he's going to do. He's out for a little bit, but hopefully he can contribute somewhere down the line.
"He's a smart pitcher. I think he realizes that he can't overpower guys like he used to and he's turned more into a pitcher. He's going to locate the ball, he's going to know what pitches to throw on what count and he's a guy who is comfortable throwing any pitch on any count. That's what veterans do. That's what guys who have been around a long time [do]. They may not have the stuff they used to, but they're definitely smarter."
Jones said that even though Santana might not help the Orioles on the field immediately, he has had the reputation of being a good teammate and can serve as a mentor for younger pitchers while he's recovering.
"The guy's track record is his track record, and I think it's also not even about the physical," Jones said. "I think it's what he can do by being around here. He can push the pitchers, push a lot of the younger guys. He's a mentor. He's been a great mentor everywhere he's been, so when you bring that quality too and not just the physical quality but the other aspect. He can come out here and help mentally with a lot of the younger pitchers."
Also of note:
Outfielder Nolan Reimold was back in camp on Tuesday and participated in the morning workout after he was sent home Monday because of what he thinks was a bout with food poisoning.
“The night before was rough,” Reimold said of early Monday morning. “But I started feeling gradually better throughout the day. I went somewhere, I ate and it was just all downhill after that. … We went and ate and I just gradually felt worse until it all came to a climax around 3 or 4 in the morning.”