Johan Santana threw a bullpen session in Port St. Lucie on Friday (below), getting a head start on his fellow pitchers and catchers who are set to report to spring training on Monday. Santana emerged from his 25-pitch outing “feeling good.” And that’s great because Santana is the key to the Mets future — in more ways than one.
Obviously if Santana can be the Santana of old, or even a reasonable facsimile, the starting rotation will be that much stronger, giving the Mets a chance to compete. Without him the Mets are aceless (remember the great “Mike Pelfrey is an ace” experiment in 2011? That ended when John Buck’s grand slam sailed over the wall on Opening Day in Florida).
If Santana can solidify the rotation — the weakest link on the team in my opinion — the Mets could actually contend if everything else falls into place. So in that sense the Mets future is in his left arm.
However let’s say Santana does come back healthy and everything else does not fall into place and the Mets are out of contention by the trading deadline. You don’t think at least one team which thinks it is one pitcher away from the World Series would take a chance on a healthy Santana? Perhaps that team would also be willing to pick up most, if not all of Santana’s contract, which would be around $10 million for the remainder of 2012, $25.5 for 2013 and then a $5.5 million buyout for 2014. You get a proven Santana for the stretch run, the playoffs and a full 2013 for around $40 million. If you win a World Series or two because of it, that’s not too bad at all, and it’s not a long commitment.
Likely the Mets would have to pick up some of it, but if they can clear most of that salary from the books, they can go out and get two or three quality players as well as keep David Wright. A rebuilding team cannot afford a $25 million ace, whether he is healthy or not. So once again the Mets future, this time the team’s financial future, is in Santana’s left arm.
The double-whammy would be if Santana cannot come back healthy. Then the Mets are saddled with the contract and getting no production out of it.
That is definitely an unfortunate possibility. It’s been repeated ad nauseum that Chien-Ming Wang is the latest pitcher to attempt a comeback from this particular shoulder surgery to the anterior capsule, and it took him two years to make it back to the majors. Santana’s surgery was in September 2010, so he is hoping to top Wang’s timetable.
So if Santana makes if back by Opening Day — still a big if — no one knows what to expect. It is safe to say he won’t have the same stuff he had before, but I think he can still be effective. Santana is a smart man who knows how to pitch, not just throw. As Mets fans we have seen this twice recently, with Al Leiter and Pedro Martinez. Both of them had diminished stuff but they were still able to go out there and even if they struggled a bit, they were able to battle because they knew what they were doing out there.
It could be really fun to watch Santana this season. It is difficult to say that watching someone struggle is fun, but it will be interesting to see how Santana will be able to get himself out of trouble by using his pitching smarts. Just from a baseball standpoint it could be fascinating.
In any case, the Mets future — both on the field and financially — is literally on Santana’s shoulders. That is a tough burden for anyone, especially someone whose shoulder may not be up for the challenge.