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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.