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Was Santana Already Injured When He Arrived?



By Mike Silva ~ February 5th, 2012. Filed under: New York Mets.

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 HumberCarlos GomezKevin 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 had CC 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.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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7 Responses to Was Santana Already Injured When He Arrived?

  1. Steve S.

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=SANTANA19790313A

    Looking at his injury history pre-deal (08 prior) there really isn’t much there to lead one to be concerned. Knee surgery on the meniscus, various bumps and bruises. The most concerning injury happened all the way back in 2001 when he had an elbow strain, but there was no recurrence over the next 7 years.

    The velocity had already showed signs of decline, but at the time of the deal it wasn’t anything major. Given his repertoire, he would be able to remain effective even if he was to dip below 90 MPH, so it would appear he had plenty left before you would get concerned.

    I would agree the contract was too long, for two reasons. Minaya should have played hardball on the years. Since the package he gave up was minimal there was no need to worry about Santana going FA. But Minaya was an awful contract negotiator (Pedro, Bay, etc). Next, Johan doesn’t have a classic build for a power pitcher, and guys with his frame typically break down in their early 30s.

    I would have given Johan 5 years, tried to get some flexibility (option) on year 6. Guaranteeing the 7th year was way too much, and probably unnecessary. But Omar never met a dollar he wouldn’t spend, and Mets fans are currently living with the consequences.

  2. Chuck Johnson

    “I wonder if we will see 50 starts out of him the next two years”

    You should be wondering if you’ll see a dozen.

    Stick a fork in him, he’s done.

    See Brandon Webb.

  3. Ramon

    Hindsight sure is 20/20.

    No one had any idea that he was going to blow out as badly as he did.

  4. Joe D.

    I don’t believe he had any pre-existing injuries to be concerned about, just the usual garden variety bumps and bruises all players go through. Looking at his 40-25 record and 2.85 ERA for the Mets before his shoulder gave out, would indicate he was still performing at an elite level.

  5. Mike Silva

    Joe D.

    We all watched him, and he was far more hittable. In 2010 he went through a really bad stretch. He was an ace, but not the “Best Pitcher in Baseball” that deserved a 7-year deal. It’s truly hindsight, and the only thing you can say with certainty is 7-year deals for pitchers are a bad idea.

  6. Joe D.

    We are in total agreement on the 7-year deals being bad for pitchers. I’m just hoping as you are, that Santana gives us 60 solid starts in the next two season and helps us win some games. If he does that, then basically we got six good seasons out of seven which is a lot more than you can say for Barry Zito and Mike Hampton. Keep up the solid work!

  7. Dave Dillon

    Minnesota is one of those small market teams that cannot exist with major contract mistakes. We won the deal but lost the contract – comforting, but…. We probably lost the deal with MN for Frank Viola. He was also basically done after 1 very good/excellent year with us. Twice MN knew when it was time to let a major market team take a risk on a starter who was beginning to slow down.

    Johan had a great first year with us but the change in leagues could have been expected to result in increased K’s and reduced hits & ERA. Those stat’s along with the reported change in armslot & velocity would seem to support that he was not pitching 100% of his strength/health.

    If you are going to tie up 25(+)% of payroll in one guy, it had better be a guy who can be reasonably expected to be available to play and play well, for the entire season. Pitchers’ throwing arms/shoulders tend to be more susceptible to injury vs. non-pitchers. Once the arm/shoulder is damaged they cannot contribute in other ways, the way a positional player may be able to do. A power hitter unable to take an extra base can still offer protection to others in the lineup and can still homer, hit sac flies, etc….

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