After enduring another excruciating outing by Daisuke Matsuzaka on Labor Day, Mets fans everywhere were reminded that no franchise can ever have too much starting pitching. After seeing 60 percent of New York’s starting rotation go down in the span of a month, the team now faces the prospect of finishing a once-promising 2013 sending out the converted longman Carlos Torres and washed-up Dice-K (or newly-acquired journeyman Aaron Harang) two-to-three days a week.
The Mets are anxious to put the rest of 2013 in the books and focus on the immediate future of 2014, where the best-case scenario produces a rotation of a healthy Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese, Jenrry Mejia, and Dillon Gee. Come midseason, the team expects to produce the third in a trilogy of summer blockbusters that started with Harvey in 2012 and continued with Wheeler this year, as both sizzling prospects Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard (or whichever is left after a potential offseason trade) are expected to make their major-league debuts. At the start of August, this was the bright, shiny future Sandy Alderson was expected to ride into 2014 glory and beyond.
The passing August of agony, however, has thrown every kind of wrench into the Mets’ short-term plans. While he plans to be ready for Opening Day, it will take another month for Matt Harvey to decide whether he needs Tommy John surgery. Should he elect to go under the knife, his entire 2014 will be lost, and the Mets will be a starter short for their comeback season. Internal options to replace Harvey, at least for the first couple months, are limited, as both Montero and Syndergaard need more grooming in the minors and longtime standby Jeremy Hefner is unavailable after his own Tommy John surgery last week.
And so, with the prospect of a broken rotation entirely possible, Alderson may think he will have to get creative in order to fix the problem. The most obvious fix, however, is right under everyone’s nose, flying under the radar but insistent that he will be pitching again in 2014.
I’m willing to bet a sizable margin of our readers forgot that Johan Santana was still technically a New York Met. He may be at the tail end of his six-year, $137.5 million megadeal, he may have had his entire 2013 season wiped out by yet another shoulder surgery, he may be 35 years old next March and hardly given a thought by the organization once he becomes a free agent, but he’s still a New York Met. And for at least the first half of the 2014 season, he’s Alderson’s best option.
Santana’s second surgery on the surface appears to have gone much better than the first; he’s been better able to do regular activities and according to his agent has been sleeping well. He is adamant about pitching in the big leagues next season, and almost certainly someone will bite on a former two-time Cy Young winner, even if it’s just to sell tickets. But Johan’s ceiling is much higher than that of a simple sales gimmick. Through his first 16 starts in 2012, Johan’s ERA was 2.76, his WHIP was 1.092, and he had struck out 93 batters in 98 innings.
I don’t need to remind you what happened at the onset of start number 17. What I should remind you, though, is that contrary to popular belief, Johan’s downfall was not related to the 134 pitches he threw to secure the franchise’s first no-hitter on June 1. While he struggled in the immediate aftermath, allowing ten runs over his next two starts, he was back in rhythm by June 19 against the Orioles, the first of three straight quality starts he would make to cap the historic month. No, the onset of Santana’s troubles came in the top of the fifth inning on July 6, when Chicago’s Reed Johnson stepped on his ankle during a footrace to the bag at first. Before that infield single, Johan had allowed two earned runs in four innings – solid if not spectacular. After that incident came the remaining five earned runs he let up in his 17th start of 2012. Two starts later that ankle landed Johan on the DL, and delivery adjustments he was forced to make after returning for a couple starts resulted in the back inflammation that ended his season. If Johnson doesn’t step on Santana’s ankle on July 6, perhaps we’re sitting here trying to figure out how to bring him back for the 2014 season, not if we should.
A Johan reunion in Flushing is beneficial to both sides at little cost to either. Given his health troubles over the past four years, it would be absurd for Santana to expect even half of the $25 million he would have earned next season had the Mets exercised their option on him. I think it would be fair for Sandy to offer a one-year contract worth something in the $4-5 million range, similar to the deal Shaun Marcum was inked for this past offseason. If necessary it may be doable to go up to $6 million since the ceiling on Johan is significantly higher than that of Marcum – just look at all he was able to accomplish in 2012 with a shoulder operating at less than 100 percent.
Resigning Santana would allow Alderson to resume whatever plans he made for the coming Hot Stove season before the disclosure of Matt Harvey’s injury. Most importantly, it still allows him to put together a package around either Rafael Montero or Noah Syndergaard to bring in the big bat the Mets offense so desperately needs. In addition, with Johan installed as the de facto fifth man in the rotation, whichever young pitching stud is still in the New York farm system will still have the time necessary to grow into a majors-ready starter, and the Mets can bring him up to much summer fanfare like Harvey and Wheeler before him.
Finally, by mid-July, assuming Montero or Syndergaard has suffered no setbacks, Santana’s spot in the rotation will be all but turned over to the future, giving Alderson the option of moving him. Sandy has become famous in New York for flipping older players at the end of their contracts in exchange for key future pieces – should Johan be as effective in early 2014 as he was in early 2012, Alderson will have no trouble working his magic once again.
In the brief time he was healthy and at the top of his game, Johan Santana accomplished great things for the New York Mets, not the least of which being the greatest single-game pitching feat for a franchise known for its pitching. Out of necessity, not raw sentimentality, No-Han should get one more crack at writing the final chapter of his Amazin’ legacy in Flushing.