Saturday, November 2, 2013

Was The Johan Santana Trade Worth It For The Mets?

"Who does this stupid blogger think he is, trying to say I wasn't worth the money?  I didn't see him pitch a no-hitter."

After a six-year relationship with the Mets, Johan Santana is no longer on the team's payroll, as the Mets paid the lefty $5.5 million to buy out his $25 million option for 2014.  With Santana no longer part of the team, the time has come to analyze whether or not the Mets did the right thing by trading for him in 2008.

At the time of the deal, which sent Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra to the Minnesota Twins, the Mets were trying desperately to make amends with their fans after their epic collapse in 2007.  To complete the trade, the Mets signed Santana to a six-year, $137.5 million contract, which at the time was the most lucrative deal ever given to a pitcher.

Johan Santana was very good as a Met - when he was healthy.  In his first year in Flushing, Santana was 16-7 with 206 strikeouts and a league-leading 2.53 ERA.  Santana became the first left-handed pitcher in franchise history to lead the league in ERA in 2008, and the fourth Met overall to accomplish the feat, following right-handed starters Tom Seaver (1970, 1971, 1973), Craig Swan (1978) and Dwight Gooden (1985).  Santana's 206 strikeouts are also tops for a southpaw in club annals, surpassing Jon Matlack's record of 205 Ks, which he accomplished in 1973.

In his final start of the season, Santana gave one of the gutsiest performances by a pitcher in the team's history.  With the Mets needing to win to stay alive in the race for a postseason berth, Santana fired a three-hit shutout against the Florida Marlins on just three days rest.  And he did it with a torn meniscus in his left knee.  The Mets failed to make the playoffs in 2008 but succeeded in finally having a true ace atop their rotation.  Or so it seemed.

Santana's start on September 27, 2008 came in the first year of his six-year commitment to the Mets.  He would only make one more September start for the Mets over the last five years of his contract.  An assortment of injuries kept Santana on the disabled list for all of 2011 and 2013, and curtailed his 2009, 2010 and 2012 seasons.  But that 2012 campaign saw Santana do something no Mets fan ever thought he'd see.

On June 1, 2012, Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in franchise history in the team's 8,020th regular season game.  Just like every Mets fan knows where he or she was on that unbelievable night, most Mets fans remember that he needed 134 pitches to complete his gem.  After he struck out David Freese to enter no-hit nirvana, Santana suffered through pitching purgatory.  An 8.27 ERA over his next ten starts left Terry Collins and Mets fans wondering if the inflated pitch count needed to secure his place in team history contributed to his post-no-hitter blues.  They continued to wonder for a year and a half, as Santana never pitched again for the Mets after August 17, 2012.

Johan Santana went 46-34 in 109 starts as a Met.  His 3.18 career ERA in New York is lower than the ERAs posted by all-time Met greats Ron Darling, Al Leiter and Rick Reed.  But for $137.5 million, we expected a little more.

For example, Santana's 46 victories fell short of the win total posted by relief pitchers John Franco (48), Jesse Orosco (47) and Tug McGraw (47).  Santana's 109 starts are also nine fewer than the number of starts made by Jonathon Niese, a pitcher who was still playing for AA-Binghamton when Santana made his first start for the Mets.

Great pitchers are supposed to produce great moments.  But other than the penultimate game of the 2008 season and the no-hitter, can anyone honestly remember another memorable pitching performance by Johan Santana?

Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus

Mention Tom Seaver and you immediately think of the "imperfect game" or his ten-inning performance in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series (the Ron Swoboda game), or any of a number of dominant performances in 1973 when the rest of the team was floundering.  Similarly, say Doc Gooden's name and visions of back-to-back 16-strikeout games in 1984 and his 14-game winning streak in 1985 become crystal clear in your mind.

Johan Santana had two games that will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of Mets fans.  That's the same number of complete seasons he missed.

Don't get me wrong.  As a Mets fan who agonized over every late-inning first hit allowed by a starting pitcher, it was a dream come true to see someone like Johan Santana pitch the first no-hitter in team history.  Better him than someone like Oliver Perez.

But $137.5 million is just a tad too much for a no-hitter and a season-saving gritty performance - one that saved the season until it was lost the following day.  Carlos Gomez, the main piece in the deal that pried Santana away from the Twins, is now a Gold Glove-winning All-Star in Milwaukee.  His 24 homers and 40 stolen bases for the Brewers in 2013 would have led the Mets in both categories.  (Marlon Byrd's 21 homers and Eric Young's 38 steals led the team.)  Since 1989, only one Met has led the team in home runs and stolen bases in the same season.  That was Mike Cameron, who paced the 2004 Mets with 30 homers and 22 steals.

Carlos Gomez just completed the first year of a four-year, $28.3 million deal with the Brewers.  That's just barely more than the $25.5 million Johan Santana was paid in 2013 to not throw a single pitch for the Mets.

The no-hitter was great.  But I would have liked to see Santana win more games than Jesse Orosco.  A monkey's paw-like wish for a moment 8,020 games in the making doesn't seem to be worth what the Mets doled out for their smooth former All-Star.

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