Johan’s Future

News broke late last week that Johan Santana was experiencing fatigue in his surgically repaired left shoulder. Though there isn’t any new damage to the area, the news was unsettling, especially since he had just began throwing rehab assignments in the minor leagues. On July 28, his first taste of live action since September 2 of last season, Santana pitched three scoreless innings for St. Lucie, allowing two hits while striking out three. Nothing could be gleaned from the outing other than the fact that he had progressed in his rehab enough to actually pitch in a game.

Not much is known about what will happen to him from here on out. Few athletes have ever had the same surgery — Mark Prior, Chien-Ming Wang and NFL quarterback Chad Pennington round out the list of those with surgeries to fix torn anterior capsules — and the fatigue may or may not lead to further treatment. Right now, Santana will rest for a week before being reevaluated. If the fatigue subsides, he will probably continue his rehab, unless the team decides to shut him down. That decision would only hold water if the Mets felt the risk of further aggravation was high.

Though the Mets aren’t going to make the playoffs this season, meaning the return of Santana isn’t the difference between winning or losing the division or wild card, getting him back on a major league mound would have been a big boon for the organization. As the highest-paid player and best pitcher on the team, even making two or three starts in September would have re-acclimated him to higher leverage situations, when the arm tends to undertake more stress. In addition to getting him back on the mound for their own evaluations, Santana’s performance this season may have had trade ramifications.

With $24 million owed to him next season, $25.5 million the year after, and a $5.5 million buyout in 2014 on a $25 million club option, the Mets still have a significant investment in the ace lefty. But the free agent starting pitching market is quite thin, and even with a hefty price tag and questionable health history of late, Santana would vault toward the top of the list if made available. If the Mets paid half of the remaining funds, and Santana seemed healthy enough to throw 180-190 innings, pitching-starved teams with deep minor league systems — cough, Reds, cough — would deal from their strengths for the right to pay a potential 4-5 WAR pitcher $12 million for two years.

Now? None of that can realistically happen. The fatigue represents a costly setback not only in terms of lost dollars this season — Santana made $22.5 million — but also the opportunity cost of not being able to “cash in” on the perception that his health has significantly improved.

Eight years ago, Santana was a Twins swingman for whom a “Free ________” campaign was started. He was a young flamethrower with a funky windup that looked like he was literally twisting the ball toward home plate. The potential was obvious, and was realized the next season, when he won the AL Cy Young Award with the following ridiculous numbers: 228 IP, 156 hits, 10.5 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 2.61 ERA, 2.77 SIERA, 7.7 WAR. He should have (or should of, as the kids like to say) won it again in 2005, when he produced 7.6 WAR, but lost out to Bartolo Colon. He took home hardware once again in 2006, with 7.3 WAR, putting together one of the most impressive peaks in history.

Now? Now, he’s a 32-year-old starter with a checkered injury history. declining peripherals, and a high salary.

Injuries cost him approximately 15 starts over 2009-10, as well as this entire season. His future is questionable, especially given the declining strikeout and walk rates before the injuries. Santana could spend this week resting, continuing his rehab next week, and making a few starts in September that gives hope for the following season, a la Tim Hudson in 2009. The improved health could prove that his peripherals were suffering because of the ailments and not a general decline or loss of ‘stuff’. Or this could all be the start of a trend, where he looks like a shell of himself and physically falls apart.

The risks of signing a pitcher to a lucrative, long-term deal are all being realized with Santana, as his prime in both performance and health came in his cost-controlled years. While the signing made perfect sense at the time given the Mets position, the team hasn’t exactly recouped the value they wanted from the deal. The next few days will go a long way toward determining his future in baseball and with the Mets.

Maybe Santana will respond differently than Wang and Prior, or maybe the anterior capsule tear is a much more devastating injury than we think. While many, myself included, are hoping for the former, the situation has an ominous feel to it. Five years from now we might all be playing the ‘what-if’ game with Santana’s career. Boy would that be a shame for such a special pitcher.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

26 Responses to “Johan’s Future”

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  1. Max says:

    As a Twins fan who remembers Santana’s heyday, I’m not sure I’d trade much for him now coming off of injuries and declining stuff. He was a special pitcher, but the league has changed the last few years and there are a lot more good pitchers in the league. Put the question a bit differently–would you give up much for Jake Peavy? He was never as good as Santana, but his downward arc looks similar.

    On a related note, anyone have a clue how the heck Santana has managed to post a career .275 BABIP? We talk about Matt Cain beating his xFIPs, but jeez, Santana’s got him licked.

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    • RC says:

      Low BABIP aren’t always luck. In this case, its a skill. Its just not a skill alot of players have.

      Whats kind of interesting is the years where his K% is highest, so is his BB%.

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    • Yinka Double Dare says:

      I think on injury risk alone with their large salaries, no one’s trading for Santana or Peavy at this point. But it should be noted that Peavy’s actually pitching in the majors unlike Johan, and his FIP and xFIP are in fact pretty close to his Cy Young year. He’s been done in by bad luck and his endurance still coming back (leading to some big innings right before he gets yanked). But he’s still capable of being a pretty darn good pitcher, as the Twins saw yesterday. If he’d just stop being so bullheaded and actually say something when he tweaks a groin or he’s feeling like he doesn’t have it and needs to come out, it’d be even better, but that appears to be something he’ll never learn.

      But yeah, Peavy’s got something from a pig attaching his lat. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d really want to bank on with big bucks.

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    • evo34 says:

      Poor comparison. Peavy has been hurt a lot, but has never been bad when he has played. Santana has not been a really good pitcher since 2008.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      evo, Santana’s been plenty good. He obviously hasn’t been an ace like he was a few years back, but he’s been a good pitcher. ERA right around 3.00, worth 3 wins a year, FIP in line with 2007-2008. His strikeout rate as fallen off, but he’s still been productive while on the mound.

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  2. bluejaysstatsgeek says:

    I wonder if the stem-cell treatment like that Bartolo Colon had would help him?

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  3. jesse says:

    That is a grim set of names tied to that procedure

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  4. Hurtlocker says:

    Major shoulder reconstruction is a lot like removing your car’s interior and putting it all back. It just never seems to fit right again, gets loose and squeaky
    over time and things just stop working. Sad for a talent like Santana.

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  5. Bronnt says:

    And here I was expecting to read another article about Johan Santa

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  6. Barkey Walker says:

    For all the bad moves the Twins have made, not resigning Santana makes up for about 1/2 of them.

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    • Jim says:

      The package the Twins got for Santana from the Mets was pathetic, especially considering what the Red Sox and Yankees were supposedly offering two months before he took it. It looked bad at the time, and the inability of Carlos Gomez to mature into a quality player made it even worse.

      One could easily make the argument (and quite a few have) that Smith’s inability to get anything of value in return for a guy who was one of the best pitchers in the world at the time is a huge reason why they’re in the spot they are today.

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      • Trotter76 says:

        Phil Humber’s proving to by quite the 6th starter this year.

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      • Small Sample Goodness says:

        Don’t forget Jim Hoey as fruit of the trade tree!

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      • glassSheets says:

        Carlos Gomez and Phil Humber have out surplus valued Johan Santana big time since the trade. Not spending that extra money they saved wisely is costing the Twins more than not paying Santana.

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    • Josh says:

      Maybe Santana doesn’t get hurt if he stays with the twins. I seem to remember reports about how Santana seemed well positioned to age well due to the Twins’ careful handling of him.

      Also there is opportunity cost, its not like we got as much back as you’d think for the best pitcher in the mlb at the time

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      • Kyle says:

        Remember how he pitched on 3 days rest the last game of the 2008 season hoping to make the playoffs? He threw a 3 hit shutout striking out 9 right after having about 8 straight games of throwing 108 to 125 pitches when that season he hadn’t been totally right or thrown back to back games of 8 and 9 innings with pretty high pitch counts. He only threw 234 innings compared to 219 in 2007… but did throw 253 more pitches and if the Twins were being careful with him(a 6 foot lefty whose fastball had been declining almost every year.)

        While his numbers don’t look bad with the Mets, I actually only think his first season was good. His ERA is deceptive pitching in Citi Bank in 09 and 10. In 09, he was 5-6 with an ERA over 4 and his WHIP was 1.365. And the splits were better in the next year but he was constantly hurt. They should have shut him down after 08 when he kept having arm fatigue with fastball not even averaging over 90 mph. His changeup would suffer if his fastball isn’t 91-94 mph. I don’t see this ending well, I mean, he’ll be 33 next year. Similar to Brandon Webb… but Harden is still teasing teams into thinking he’ll be healthy one day. I guess anything is possible.

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  7. Andrew says:

    I thought this was about Jonah Keri, at first.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    There’s a lot of IFs in this situation.

    [1] IF he really does still have 4-5 WAR potential.
    [2] IF he can pitch 180-190 IP season.
    [3] IF the Mets are willing to pay half his salary to make a trade.

    I’m skeptical about #1 and #2, but with #3 I’m wondering why the Mets would pay another team 10-12M/y to trade for their 4-5 WAR potential pitcher that is likely going to be less attractive than Ubaldo Jimenez.

    In other words, he’s likely not going to bring back enough in trade, for NYM to part with 4-5 WAR/y and pay ~25M of Santana’s salary.

    Just who are these prospects NYM will get in return, and if they’re that good why is CIN getting rid of them?

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Sure, there are plenty of IFs in this situation. The same can be said of any situation. And I was pretty clear that the trade talks were all MAYBEs, as the idea had been floated previously, but never really gained much traction. And, again, as I mentioned in the post, a team like the Reds has a deep farm system with road-blocked players that wouldn’t hurt them to unload. That type of situation, and those types of players, would benefit the Mets the same way Johan would benefit the other team. It’s all speculative, so don’t take anything written above as 100 percent guaranteed. I made sure nothing came off that way.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Speaking of IF’s, I wonder if:

      1) Santana pitches pretty well next year, but is more of an overpaid #3 starter.
      2) The Mets aren’t in contention next year (although this is a ‘when’, not an ‘if)
      3) The Mets place him on waivers next August.

      Will another team put a claim on him, thinking he could help them out in the playoffs? If so, will the Mets let him go as a salary dump, without getting anything in return.

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  9. AA says:

    Hey, last I checked, Johan Santana was pitching really well for the Angels. I also don’t see where left shoulder fatigue is an issue – said Johan Santana is right handed :-P

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  10. evo34 says:

    No one in his right mind would trade for a guy who throws 89 (vs. mid-90s in his peak) and has major injury question marks. If the Mets were a public corporation, Santana as an asset would be marked to zero. He’s not even a late-career LOOGY candidate, as he is actually a bit better against righties.

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  11. Check Your Self says:

    In Responce to AA

    You are clearly confusing Johan Santana with Ervin Santana of the Angels and although similar in name and stature Johan by far had a better arsenal with the twins and his early days with the mets… and to clarify Johan unlike Ervin is a left handed pitcher so the reconstruction of his left shoulder is very relevant because if history serves us correctly no athlete has been able to reclaim the same arm strength after such a bout under the knife

    So AA you i hope you check yourself next time you post… unless of course if this was a pun than haha good old clean name joke but i think you was pretty stupid* no need for that ignorance on fangraphs giving all of us a bad name F*** g0d******

    *incorrect grammar use was a pun in junction with “pretty stupid” (see AA this is how you clarify that you are not being an ignorant poster/ass wipe)

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