When the winter meetings kicked off yesterday, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos hinted that he might leave with a closer before the week was over.
He got one in a swift move this afternoon, effectively putting an end to the countless offseason rumors. And in trademark fashion, he caught everyone by surprise by shipping standout pitching prospect Nestor Molina to the Chicago White Sox for Sergio Santos in a top-secret deal.
As most Jays fans know, it’s a homecoming of sorts for Santos, who returns to Toronto after being obtained by the Jays along with Troy Glaus when they shipped Orlando Hudson to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005. Then, Santos was a minor league infielder, whereas now, he’s one of the top relief pitchers in the game. Anthopoulos has said that Santos will definitely be his closer, so wondering who will receive ninth-inning duties is now no longer a concern.
In Santos the Jays get a hard thrower whose fastball sits right around 95 mph, but his out pitch is his filthy slider. Actually, the mid-80s pitch is so good that Santos uses it almost exclusively in two-strike counts, and it’s considered the best strikeout pitch in baseball.
Santos is aggressive on the mound and gets ahead in counts, which is exactly what a team wants in their closer. After averaging almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings last season, Santos struck out 92 batters in 63 innings this season for an absurd 13.1 K/9 and a 35.4 strikeout percentage. One year after allowing 53 hits in 51.2 innings in 2010, he allowed just 41 in 63 frames in 2011 (5.8 H/9) and finished the year with a 3.55 ERA (2.87 FIP). Plus, this past season marked his second consecutive campaign with a 43% ground ball rate, which should play out nicely at Rogers Centre.
The main draw with Santos was his very team-friendly contract, which could span up to six years. He’ll make just $1 million in 2012, before seeing his salary increase to $2.75 million in 2013 and then to $3.75 million in 2014. After that, there are three club options that could be exercised as well — $6 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016, and $8.75 million in 2017, all with $750k buyouts.
In Molina, the Jays gave up one of their fastest-rising pitching prospects and one of my personal favorites, well before he was a starter. A converted position player just like Santos, I ranked Molina at No. 47 on our top 50 prospects list at the end of the 2010 campaign largely because he was a reliever. But all signs pointed to him becoming a starter in 2011, as mentioned in that scouting report from last year:
"Normally, using a four-pitch repertoire to throw strikes as a reliever seems excessive. According to Blue Jays minor league pitching coordinator Dane Johnson, the Jays have really used Molina as a reliever only because his arm hasn’t been built up and he’s coming over from being a position player. Johnson also says that Molina’s pitch arsenal makes him think that he could be a starter, and that it’s not out of the question for next season."
The 2011 season arrived and shortly into it, Molina became a starter; building all of his value in the process. After managing 115 strikeouts to 14 walks in 18 starts with Hi-A Dunedin, Molina was even more dominant in five starts with Double-A New Hampshire, striking out 33, walking two, and allowing just one earned run in 22 innings.
Despite talks of Molina’s erratic delivery, the plan seemed to be to extend him even further as a starter to an innings total of around 160 in 2012, and most of those innings could have come at the big league level. Instead, the Jays managed to get their closer of the future for Molina, who could very well be a good pitcher for the White Sox for years to come.
And that’s where the debate is with this trade. The fact that Molina could be a good pitcher in the Windy City.
As electric as Molina’s minor league numbers were, there’s always the chance that they might not translate at the Major League level. The Jays moved Molina at the peak of his value to fill a hole on their big league roster with a pitcher who has already proved he can be effective and overpowering in the Majors.
While the White Sox could have likely received more than one prospect for Santos, they received a very good one in Molina. Reactions to him among scouts were mixed, though, as some feel his future is in the bullpen, while others, like the White Sox obviously, view him as a key cog to their rotation going forward. If Molina’s future is in the ‘pen, then this trade looks even better for Anthopoulos and the Jays.
When you factor in the kind of power pitcher Santos is, the revolving door of inconsistent closers that the Jays have had in recent seasons, and the years of control that the club has on Santos, it’s clear that the Jays made a very good trade.