Nobody knew what to expect from Johan Santana going into last season; he was coming off an incredibly long rehab process after a surgery that no other baseball player has returned from. Going through camp in Port St. Lucie, it looked as though Terry Collins was sitting on pins and needles every time Johan took the mound, just hoping he would walk off it with his health in check. Now as we look to 2013, there are still questions around Santana’s health and performance, especially now that Sandy Alderson has shipped out the 2012 NL Cy Young winner in R.A. Dickey.
The first half of 2012 couldn’t have gone any better for Johan; after throwing five shutout innings against the Braves on Opening Day at Citi Field (which led to a 1-0 victory), he seemed to get stronger and make positive strides with each start (except for the 1.1 IP, 6 runs allowed at Turner Field in his third start). The climax of his comeback was his June 1st no-hitter against Carlos Beltran and the St. Louis Cardinals, but the five walks allowed and 134 pitches he threw wasn’t the trademark Santana we’ve come to grow and love in Flushing, but it was his start before against the Padres.
In the middle of a four-game set against San Diego at home, Mets pitching dominated, taking three of four in the weekend series. The performance Santana put together was masterful, and one that I felt was vintage Johan; he threw a complete game shutout, allowing four hits, no walks, and seven strikeouts on 96 pitches (74 strikes)- just complete and utter domination of the opposition. After watching that unfold, I knew he was back, and then to follow that with the first no-hitter in Mets history after everything he’s been through to get back on the mound? This seemed like a story made for a movie.
However, we all know about the struggles he endured after that historic game. He stumbled a bit into the All-Star break, but it was after the mid-summer classic where the wheels came off, as he went 0-4 in his four starts, putting together a 16.33 ERA, 2.51 WHIP, and a .423 opponent batting average in 14.1 innings pitched. Some were worried the 130+ pitches he threw in his no-hitter affected his arm, and then he hurt his ankle in July against the Cubs, which made him overcompensate in his throwing motion until he was shut down in the middle of August. His final line? Not very pretty: 6-9 record with a 4.85 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 111 strikeouts in 117 innings pitched (21 starts). However, the southpaw felt 2012 was a success because he was able to get back out on the mound and for the most part, compete every five days when it was his turn in the rotation.
Understandably so, there are plenty of question marks surrounding Santana and his monster $25.5 million salary heading into 2013. With Dickey gone, he needs to once again be the ace of this staff and lead the way for the younger incumbent hurlers like Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Matt Harvey. When it comes to predicting how Santana will produce this season, the fact that he’s had a full off-season to rest and go through his normal winter workouts shouldn’t go unnoticed.
It’s hard to believe, but since his first season with New York in 2008, he’s never had an off-season in which he didn’t have to rehab for some kind of surgery. After ’08, he underwent surgery to repair the torn meniscus he was pitching with. His 2009 season was cut short in August when he needed arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow. Finally, we obviously know how 2010 ended, as he tore the anterior capsule in his left shoulder, which caused him to miss all of 2011 due to multiple setbacks. Although he wasn’t expected to start a throwing program until this month, Santana has had the entire winter to rest and exercise to strengthen his body as a whole to withstand an entire year of pitching, instead of having to focus on rehabbing after a surgery.
Now that he has been able to distance himself further from his last major injury and continue to rebuild his endurance, I expect Johan to return to the form we saw in the first half of 2012 for the duration of 2013. Is he going to turn in a season like he did in 2008 (16-7, 2.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 206 K’s in 234,1 IP)? Absolutely not. That’s on the same level of expecting Dickey to repeat his performance from this last season- it just wouldn’t be fair. However, a season in which Santana can win 10-15 games, compile an ERA between 3.00-3.50, and throw between 180-200 innings is more than reasonable (mirroring his 2009 and 2010 seasons).
There’s no doubt that Johan has been one of the more dominant pitchers in the game during the 2000s, and I always feel that great players aren’t truly done until they say they are. That’s why when people were saying Derek Jeter was washed up during his pursuit of 3,000 hits, I told my friends he’s going to go off once he passed the milestone. And he did. That’s why Mariano Rivera is coming back for one last season, and will likely dominate, ending his Hall of Fame career on his own terms.
Johan Santana has that intense streak of competitiveness running through his veins, and he won’t let how his 2012 season ended be the last memory Mets fans have of him. That’s why I’m confident he will once again lead this pitching staff and bring the focus and swagger they need to take positive steps as a team and organization in 2013.