Was Santana Already Injured When He Arrived?

Johan Santana is scheduled to make about $25 million dollars each of the next two years. There’s also an option for 2014, which adds another $25 million if he reaches awards incentives and/or innings threshold. The combination of Santana’s health and the Mets reduced payroll make this a very punishing financial commitment.

I think Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTR said it best by opining the Mets won the deal that sent Philip Humber, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra to the Twins for Santana, but lost the contract.

Could you blame the Mets for giving him a 7-year deal? They were coming off a collapse due to their starting pitching falling apart in September. Their crosstown rivals were hot on Santana’s trail, as were the Red Sox. When they acquired his services without giving up their top hitting prospect (Fernando Martinez) or top pitching prospect (Mike Pelfrey), they couldn’t lose the deal over a failure to negotiate a contract.

No one, including me, was against the deal or contract in February of 2008. When Santana went undefeated in the second half of that season and pitched a gem in Game 161, no one was thinking of years 5 and 6 of his deal. Even when Santana was injured in the last months of 2009 and 2010, it wasn’t a big deal since none of the players sent to Minnesota were still there, nor was there reason to worry about Santana’s contract being a problem. The Mets were working on a payroll of $140-$150 million, so $25 million of dead money wasn’t going to destroy their flexibility. Signing pitchers to long-term deals is a risk you had to live with and accept the consequences.

That flexibility is where the Santana deal starts to inflict pain. Sandy Alderson is working on about $90 million dollar budget for 2012. This number is about $30 million less than what was anticipated a year ago. You can win with that type of payroll, but it’s difficult when over a quarter of that money is dedicated to a player that may never pitch again.

Could the Mets have predicted Santana’s declining health? There is reason to believe they may have ignored factors that were on display for everyone to see.

Bill Baer wrote at Baseball Prospectus in late 2010 that “by all accounts, he (Santana) had a great ’07 season, but his K/9 dipped to 7.9 and he lost 1.5 MPH on his average fastball speed from ’06 to ’07. Both nuggets of information went relatively unnoticed. Those who did take note usually labeled it a fluke.”

Indeed, Santana won the Cy Young Award in 2006 by going 19-6 with a 2.77 ERA. He led the American League in strikeouts, innings and allowed less than one base runner per inning. The next year, 2007, Santana was 15-13 with a 3.33 ERA. His strikeout rate remained healthy, but there was an uptick in base runners.

“His K/9 has dropped from 9.7 in 2007 to 6.4 here in ’10,” Baer added. “In the same span of time, his fastball lost 2.3 MPH; his slider 3.1 MPH; and his change-up 2.5 MPH. According to FanGraphs, his fastball and slider are as straight as they have been in the Pitch F/X era.”

Not everything can be evaluated by statistics so I reached out to a former member of the 2008 team. I was told that Santana’s arm slot was a concern from his first workout in spring training. Because of the nature of the player and deal the team elected to ignore it. If you remember, Santana pitched with a knee injury throughout the last month. Doing so probably forced him to make some adjustments, and potential put greater strain on the shoulder/elbow. Santana had elbow surgery in 2009 and shoulder surgery in 2010. There were reports of cortisone shots and the team ignoring red flags about his mechanics those seasons, as well.

Forget about hindsight on Santana, the numbers in 2008- his best year with the Mets- show a pitcher that dropped 2 strikeouts per 9, an increased walk rate, and more contact that led to base runners.  Even in his undefeated second half, none of those peripherals returned to historic levels.

Looking back, the Mets had more leverage with Santana than they probably realized. The Yankees weren’t going to give in to the Twins demands, which were way more expensive than any other team. The Red Sox appeared interested only because of the Yankees. No other team appeared to be willing to give him a long-term contract extension. The Mets probably could have pushed for 5-years, and forced Santana and his agent to blink. Do you really think he wanted to return to Minnesota after the deal was completed? Would Santana have played the year out in Minnesota and tested free agency after the season? Remember, that was the same class that hadCC Sabathia in it. Even a five year deal with the Mets might be more lucrative than what awaited the next offseason.

The Mets caved in to the pressure of making the deal. They could have had their cake and eat it too. Instead, they acquired an ace- perhaps the best pitcher in baseball at the time- but overpaid for the risky backend years of his deal. You have to wonder if they would have done so if not for the collapse the prior September.

It’s hindsight to criticize the deal today. I do think they ignored some pretty obvious red flags that should have made them keep the contract extension to around 5 years. Of course, the Mets still believed they had $500 million dollars safely tucked away in Bernie Madoff investments. That’s probably the real issue at the time; not Santana’s health.

The reality is such that I doubt Johan Santana will ever be the same again. I wonder if we will see 50 starts out of him the next two years.  I guess the only good news is the option for 2014 (source: Cot’s Contracts). Santana needs to pitch 215 innings in 2013, 420 innings in 2012-13, or 630 innings in 2011-13. It’s a safe bet that none of that will happen. The other threshold is with the Cy Young Award. Santana needs to rank second or third in the voting the next two seasons. Again, not something which to be concerned.

The Mets stole an ace but lost the deal. Sounds like a summary of the Omar Minaya era.

By Mike Silva
Sunday, 5 Feb 2012

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