Johan Santana’s struggles could be a problem for 2013, too

Johan Santana completes a no-hitter. (SNY )
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Johan Santana's 2012 season, on balance, is about what the New York Mets should have expected.

Coming off of significant shoulder surgery, Santana has been brilliant at times, providing the Mets with their first no-hitter. He's been utterly battered at other times, including Saturday night against the Braves, when he allowed eight runs and left in the second inning. And he's missed time due to injury, three weeks that ended on Saturday night.

The fact that his brilliance came entirely in the period before he was asked to throw 134 pitches in that no-hitter on June 1, and that he hasn't been close to that pitcher since is the real problem. No team can afford a pitcher of Santana's salary to be anything less than a top-tier contributor. But that's truer for the Mets than any other team, given their financial limitations.

So the postgame declarations by both Santana and manager Terry Collins that Santana is merely rusty need to prove accurate. The alternative, a grim reality reflected in Santana's post-June 1 performance, would likely sink the Mets' 2013 season before it started.

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Consider that Santana, in 11 starts including the no-hitter, had an E.R.A. of 2.38. In nine starts since, his E.R.A. is 7.98. The former is ace-level; the latter would get most other pitchers demoted to the bullpen.

The description of exactly what has ailed Santana since the no-hitter has shifted. First, it was nothing at all. Then, it was an ankle injury that pushed back a start in July. Then, the Mets diagnosed him with a "weak shoulder" resulting from compensating for the ankle. And the current problem is, apparently, rust.

Whatever the reason, the Mets were 29-23 after Santana completed his no-hitter, but 26-37 since then. The difference between putting a second ace behind R.A. Dickey and scambling for a rotation alternative is vast.

The massive amount of money the Mets owe Santana is part of what made the decision to let him throw a career-high 134 pitches on the night of his no-hitter so risky. To treat any pitcher coming off of shoulder surgery with care makes sense; one who will earn $24 million in 2012, and $31 million in 2013 ($25.5 million salary, $5.5 million buyout of his 2014 option),  is an organizational imperative.

Especially this organization. Santana's salary represents about 26 percent of the total payroll in 2012; in 2013, it will be more like a third. If Jason Bay's $19 million salary and option buyout is similarly deadweight, that puts the Mets in a $50 million hole for 2013, without significant production, before they even begin to construct a roster ownership's finances dictate must be done on the cheap. Even having R.A. Dickey, Jonaton Niese and David Wright signed to reasonable deals in 2013, while helpful, piles another $24 million onto a payroll. Frank Francisco, who just walked in a pair of runs on Sunday night, will earn another $6.5 million in 2013. That leaves 21 roster spots to fill, and roughly $10 million to do it, assuming a budget that matches 2012. The minimum salary for a major leaguer in 2013 is $490,000. So that's a roster full of league-minimum players.

Asking Sandy Alderson to construct anything approaching a winner with those constraints is probably impossible with a healthy Johan Santana. Without him, the task becomes even harder.

So when Fred Wilpon responded to a question about improving the team in 2013 by saying, "That's a Sandy question," he wasn't really telling the truth. It should be up to Alderson to use what he's given, of course. But ownership's ability to provide any additional resources for 2013 isn't the key question; it's the only question.