LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Less than 24 hours after Kris Medlen exited Sunday's start with what appears to be a season-ending elbow injury, it became apparent the Braves were at least evaluating the possibility of signing free agent Ervin Santana.
While Santana appeared to be a welcome addition to Atlanta's injury-depleted starting rotation, there was reason to wonder if the Braves would be willing to sacrifice a Draft pick and exceed their budget enough to financially compete with the offers the veteran right-hander had reportedly received from the Blue Jays, Orioles and Twins.
All of those questions were answered in an authoritative manner on Wednesday, when the Braves replenished their rotation by signing Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million contract.
"In light of what has happened over the past few days with our pitching staff, we felt it was incumbent on us to do everything we could to strengthen our starting pitching," general manager Frank Wren said. "Throughout the winter, we didn't feel like we were going to be in this market. But we felt Ervin was the No. 1 guy in the market. We've always felt if we were going to go out there, we would love to have him."
Unfortunately for Santana, the Braves did not feel the need to pursue him until seeing elbow ailments force Medlen and Brandon Beachy to make early exits from the exhibition season starts they made on Sunday and Monday, respectively.
While Medlen is preparing for the likelihood he will need to undergo Tommy John surgery, Beachy remains hopeful that he will eventually distance himself from the frustration that has followed him since he first attempted to return from this same surgical procedure in June.
"We've got a good ballclub," Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "To get a guy like [Santana] to solidify the top of the rotation, he's got a good track record. I'm excited. That's a good pickup. We have a first-class organization. They went out and got it done for us."
Santana has gone 70-60 with a 3.94 ERA in the 183 starts he has made dating back to the 2008 season, when he gained his only All-Star selection and finished sixth in balloting for the American League Cy Young Award. The 31-year-old right-hander struggled in 2012, posting a 5.16 ERA in the 30 starts he made during what was his eighth and final season with the Angels.
Santana turned things around last year, as he went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA in 32 starts with the Royals. Still, his attraction on the free-agent market was marred by the fact that the signing club would have to forfeit its first-round selection in the First-Year Player Draft this June because Kansas City had given the veteran pitcher a one-year, $14.1 qualifying offer in November.
"He's an established Major League pitcher," manager Fredi Gonzalez said from Jupiter, Fla., after Atlanta's 3-1 win over Miami. "He was out there and he's a competitor. I commend Frank. We lost Medlen. Beachy, you don't know. Minor is coming along. Frank was not afraid to go get him. That's a good thing."
Recognizing that they will be without Medlen this year and staring at the possibility that Beachy is dealing with something more than normal soreness, the Braves were willing to sacrifice their first-round selection (26th overall) to sign Santana. The blow is somewhat softened by the fact that the Braves were compensated with the 32nd overall selection when Brian McCann exited via free agency to sign with the Yankees.
"A development organization like us, Draft picks are very valuable," Wren said. "So giving up the Draft pick was the hard part of this. But I think we have to keep the big picture in focus, and the big picture is to win at the big league level. That is what we're committed to.
"We've got to do what's best for our team. To get a pitcher the quality of Ervin Santana, you do that."
Santana has been working out on his own, throwing regular bullpen sessions over the past few weeks. But instead of rushing Santana to be ready for the start of the regular season, the Braves are planning to add him to their rotation by mid-April.
If this schedule holds true, Santana could be joining the rotation around the same time as Mike Minor, who was slowed during the early days of Spring Training with left shoulder discomfort.
The Braves are planning to begin the regular season with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia and David Hale in their starting rotation. Santana and Minor could be ready when the club has to add a fifth starter by April 12. A little more than two weeks later, Gavin Floyd, who is attempting to return from Tommy John surgery, could be ready to join that quintet.
Santana completed a bullpen session at Champion Stadium on Wednesday morning and could throw a live batting-practice session later this week. If all goes well, he could make his first start of the Grapefruit League season next week.
"I'm really thrilled to be in this organization with the young talent," Santana said. "It's going to be a fun season for us."
As he drove from Port St. Lucie back to the Disney area after watching Medlen walk off the mound during Sunday's start against the Mets, Wren reached out to Santana's agent, Jay Alou, with the understanding that the veteran pitcher was in the process of being aggressively courted by the Blue Jays, Orioles and Twins.
"Once we started talking, we realized Ervin was very interested in us as well," Wren said. "He thought this was a good opportunity for him, and it was a perfect fit for us. I think we're fortunate it all happened at the right time. Another day or two later, we might not have been able to make it happen."
A day after Medlen's injury, Wren's rotation plans were further complicated when Beachy made an early exit from his two-inning stint against the Phillies because of tightness in his right elbow and biceps muscle. But even before that occurred, the Braves were already making plans to sign Santana.
As they drove to Clearwater for Monday's game against the Phils, Wren was talking to Alou while Braves president John Schuerholz was on the phone with team chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, because there was a definite need to exceed the plans to keep payroll at around $100 million.
McGuirk's willingness to do so obviously strengthened the rotation. But at the same time, he sent a message to Atlanta's players and fans that the club is committed in its attempt to defend its NL East title.
"It means our GM and our front office want to win," Gonzalez said. "These guys feel like, 'Hey, we've got to fill a void.' So we did it. I think the spirits of the guys, especially the veteran guys, should be good. I know mine are."
Said Wren: "This is an incredible decision by the organization. This is going to push us well above what we thought our budget would be this year."