Santana has connection to Blue Jays, but they’re not a lock

Free agent Ervin Santana has pitched 200 innings in five of his nine big league seasons.

Peter Aiken/Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Ervin Santana’s friends on the Toronto Blue Jays texted a photo to his cell phone, adding to their intense lobbying effort to persuade the free-agent right-hander to join their team.

The photo was of Jays players holding a poster.

"Come to Toronto," the poster said.

The story, as related by a source, reflects the advantage that the Jays hold over other clubs in the recruitment of Santana. Six players on the Jays’ projected 25-man roster hail from Santana’s native Dominican Republic. Three of those players — right fielder Jose Bautista, shortstop Jose Reyes and first baseman Edwin Encarnacion — are among the team’s biggest stars.

Santana, however, has yet to choose his next team. And a stunning development on Sunday — the departure of Braves ace Kris Medlen from his Grapefruit League start because of a strained right forearm — could alter the free agent’s thought process significantly.

The Braves will learn more about the extent of Medlen’s injury when he undergoes an MRI on Monday. Yet, even if the Braves lose Medlen for an extended period of time, it is not certain they will bid on Santana. The team is near its payroll target of just under $100 million, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

At the moment, the Blue Jays and Orioles are the leading bidders for Santana, with both offering one-year deals, according to major league sources. Santana, 31, prefers a one-year contract unless he receives a lucrative long-term proposal, as FOX Sports reported on Friday night.

Two teams — the Orioles and Twins — have made recent three-year offers to Santana, sources say. The Orioles’ overture was said to be for $27 million. The Twins’ proposal, first reported by CBSSports.com, was believed to be in the range of $30 million to $33 million.

Either offer would give Santana a significantly higher guarantee than he would get for one year; his one-year offers from the Jays and Orioles are in the range of $13 million to $14 million, sources say.

Santana, though, appears willing to bet on himself.

AROUND THE HORN

The qualifying offer for free agents next offseason is likely to range from $15 million to $16 million. If Santana merits such an offer, as he did in November from the Royals, he possibly could earn about $30 million over two years — in the range of what the Twins and Orioles offered him for three.

The risk in such a strategy, of course, is that Santana could suffer an injury or decline in performance, then return to the open market with diminished value. But Santana, after producing a career-best 3.24 ERA last season, seems undaunted by the potential downside, sources say.

The Braves, though, could offer him an intriguing alternative — a chance to pitch in the pitcher-friendly National League for the first time in his 10-year career.

Signing Santana would cost the Braves the 26th overall draft pick and accompanying pool money. But such compensation might not deter Atlanta, which gained the 32nd pick as compensation for losing free-agent catcher Brian McCann.

Payroll flexibility almost certainly would be a greater consideration for the Braves, but the loss of Medlen might leave the team with little choice but to act. Left-hander Mike Minor already is behind this spring; he experienced shoulder soreness at the start of camp, the apparent result of his month-long stretch of inactivity after undergoing a urinary tract procedure on Dec. 31.

Another option for the Braves would be to revisit trade talks for Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who will earn $5,345,000 this season — about 40 percent of what Santana is being offered — and remain under club control through 2015.

For the moment, though, the Braves are not pursuing a starter, and Santana’s choice still could come down to the Jays and Orioles.

The Jays’ offer reportedly includes a higher guarantee but no incentives; the Orioles’ offer reportedly includes incentives that could make up the difference or push their number even higher than Toronto’s. The higher taxes in Canada also could figure into the financial equation.

If the offers from the two AL East teams are close, Santana’s comfort level with his friends on the Jays could trump all. He knows fewer players on the Orioles and virtually none on the Braves, and also is unfamiliar with Atlanta, according to a source.

"Come to Toronto," the Jays’ players told Santana.

Unless something changes, the pitcher very well could lean that way.