Johan Santana makes his return and the Mets have an ace again, maybe
In a season with so many questions, nothing will provide a better indication of how the New York Mets will perform in 2012 than the availability and effectiveness of Johan Santana.
Back in 2008, the Mets believed they were adding the ace necessary to put them over the top in the National League. New York traded four prospects to Minnesota for the right to sign Santana to a six-year, $137.5 million contract.
The move was the obvious one—adding a pitcher at Santana's level is rarely possible. But the acquisition, like so many other Mets moves since 2006, hasn't worked out as envisioned.
Santana pitched extremely well in 2008 for the Mets, finishing third in the Cy Young voting and almost single-handedly leading a fading New York team into the playoffs. On the season's second-to-last day, Santana pitched a complete-game two-hitter on three days rest, and as we found out later, he did so on an injured knee that would require surgery.
But unfortunately, it was the injury that proved a harbinger of subsequent seasons, not the miraculous performance. His 2009 season ended in August thanks to bone chips in his elbow, requiring surgery. And after 199 solid but unspectacular innings in 2010, a more severe problem cropped up.
The Mets claimed after Santana left an early September start that he had a strained left pectoral muscle, and even let him throw a bullpen session with what turned out to be a major shoulder problem requiring surgery. Due to the location of tear, on his anterior capsule, the surgery required an incision, further complicating his comeback.
Despite various hopeful announcements by the team over the course of 2011, Santana didn't return to the field for the Mets. So it was something of a victory in itself when the familiar number 57 walked to the mound in Port St. Lucie today in his Mets uniform, and proceeded to pitch two innings in a split-squad preseason game. On a Tuesday in early March, at least, it was possible to dream about a rotation with a proper ace leading it.
Santana's two innings provided some positive signs. He routinely worked around 87-88 miles per hour with his fastball, according to the radar gun at the stadium, and touched 90. While that is down from the 93.1 he averaged before coming to the Mets, and even down slightly from the 89.4 he averaged with an injured shoulder in 2010, it is more than sufficient for an early spring game a month before the season. Frankly, he's proven he can pitch effectively at that speed.
Of more concern, but once again greatly tempered by the fact that this was his first game (and he's a month out from Opening Day) was his command, which wasn't very good.
He began the game by walking the St. Louis Cardinals' Shane Robinson, though Robinson was erased on a 1-6-3 double play started by the still-quick Santana off the mound. But his fastball was up in the strike zone, his change-up had little movement, he left the only two sliders he threw up as well, and induced just a single swing and a miss. In other words, he was fortunate to escape the two innings unscathed.
Had a healthy Santana had such a first outing, it would rightly be dismissed. But since Santana is recovering from shoulder surgery, command could be a lingering problem—no small matter for a pitcher who succeeded prior to his extended layoff with command, not with overpowering stuff.
What really matters now is that Santana continues to progress. If he feels good enough to make his next start in five days, then the command issues will take a back seat. The Mets need him back out there first, with effectiveness hopefully to follow.
Should Santana fail to return, or return to form, the dropoff for the Mets will be huge. Consider that even while pitching with a severely injured shoulder in 2010, Santana provided 199 innings of 131 ERA+ pitching. The year before, with bone chips in his elbow, he checked in with 166 innings of 130 ERA+ pitching. And the year before that, pitching with an injured knee for at least part of the season, he gave New York 234 innings of 166 ERA+ pitching.
By contrast, the 2011 Mets had exactly one starting pitcher—R.A. Dickey—with an ERA+ greater than 84. Even Dickey's 113 is well below the worst performances of Santana's career. And Santana's likely understudy, Miguel Batista, is 41. The last time he started regularly in the major leagues—when he was 37—his ERA+ for the season was an unsightly 68.
Nor do the Mets have the money to replace Santana. With that payroll likely frozen around $90 million, give or take a million, Santana's $24 million represents more than a quarter of it. And worse still, his $25.5 million in 2013 (along with a $6 million buyout of a 2014 team option) means he'll be the most expensive pitcher in baseball by far next season, therefore untradeable, with the possibility of a Mets ownership still unable to spend.
So the Mets, for a whole host of reasons, need Johan Santana to not only return, but return to his former self. There's no telling if that will happen from Tuesday, but at least nothing bad happened. These days for the Mets, that passes for really good news.