Johan Santana And The Mets: Ailing In A Season of Circumstance


In Spring Training, I questioned the wisdom of the Mets hierarchy as to why they would hastily name Johan Santana their Opening Day pitcher so prematurely.  So in the opening statement of a post I published on March 18, 2012, I said, “…the rush to have Johan Santana start Opening Day could result in folly.”  I also went on to say, “the Mets absolutely can not afford making a mistake attempting to get Johan Santana back in prime form for the wrong reasons.”

Here’s the setting.  This was just prior to Fred Wilpon’s big day in court, which as we know, turned out favorably for the Mets owner.  But finding favor with a jury didn’t take away from Fred Wilpon’s upcoming struggles at the gate.  I argued then, there was absolutely no reason to have Johan pitch Opening Day beyond the game itself being something symbolic.  Who was it going to benefit pitching Johan so soon?  To me at least, it seemed as if the Mets were throwing caution into the wind.

In the last weeks leading up to the season, I believed the cold truth lied somewhere between the only two people who stood to benefit from rushing Johan Santana back to the mound.  Those two were Fred and Jeff Wilpon.  Logical thinking dictates Opening Day stands on it’s own and is virtually recession; and additionally specific to the Wilpons; apathy proof.   Opening Day is a quasi-holiday for any and all teams.  So I thought, Fred Wilpon’s attendance concerns should focus on the second home series of the season, then late April, and May.  Then once school lets out, they should be worried  about the Summer, and so on.  Mishandling Johan early I reasoned, would inevitably lead to problems later.

Leading up to Opening Day, Johan Santana gave absolutely no indication he was behind schedule.  At the time, he was exactly eighteen months away (+/-) from shoulder surgery.   And his performance during Spring Training offered no reason to believe his comeback could not become a successful endeavour.  By the last days of Spring Training, Johan provided ample and compelling evidence why he deserved to make the faux-prestigious start.  But at the same time, weighing against my mind was the fact Mr. Wilpon desperately needed to sell tickets this season.  And the recent history of the Mets’ Medical staff, overall, left fans just a little shy of confidence in their practice as well.

I was merely suggesting organizational caution when it came to getting their ace pitcher back on the mound.  I said very plainly then – “The Mets’ efforts can easily backfire.  Should Johan Santana have an in-season, or worse yet, an early season relapse, or an occurrence, or an episode, or whatever you choose to call it, the team will most assuredly have looked desperate by hastening his return in an effort to sell tickets.  If that’s not the reality, there’s an excellent chance that will be the perception should such a scenario befall the Mets.”

We are now inside the dog days of Summer.  Presently, on August 13th, Johan Santana is struggling with arm strength.  But things aren’t really that cut and dry.  They never are.  On our way towards the present day, the no-hitter happened.  And I sense Coach Terry Collins has internalized that day ever since.  I feel compassion and empathy for the Mets manager, fearing he tortures himself for allowing Johan to throw in excess of 130+ pitches against his better judgement.  But what was a manager to do?  Was he really going to walk to the mound in front of the home crowd, with the intention of taking out Johan Santana in the middle of the organization’s first potential no-hitter, because of a pitch count?  Coach was in nothing short of a bind, and in post-game comments to the media, he practically prophesied the effects this game would have on Johan down the road.  Coach even intimated that he himself, would feel largely responsible if anything negative came from Johan Santana’s no-hitter.

After the no-hitter, the organization tried to off-set the impact on Johan’s arm by providing Santana extra rest before his next start.  But for the most part, Johan Santana has remained largely ineffective since that glorious day in Mets history.  He also recently spent time on the disabled list as a precaution against arm fatigue, and to let a minor ankle sprain heal.  He again made his return to the mound this past Saturday against the Braves.  Johan was already pitching on a prescribed pitch count.  That mattered not however.  He did not fare well.  Johan might still be battling fatigue as we speak.  But for a great majority of the season, he has been very hittable.  And there in lies his biggest problem.

Usually, the media is chasing down someone to blame when the club operates in these grey zones; and especially as it relates to their star pitcher.  Johan’s situation seems primed for such a hunt.  But I do not think Johan Santana’s situation warrants any blame what so ever.  So for my part, no, the Wilpons did not act nefariously for the sake of promoting ticket sales.  They haven’t all season.  Prior to March 19th, that might have been fair, however unfortunate and shortsighted to theorize.  But that sort of conspiracy thinking no longer applies.  Truth is, the Wilpons have never been that slipshod.  I’m not sure the Mets mismanaged Johan Santana at all.  Instead, the team ace’s season seems more like a matter of circumstance.  I’m usually pretty hard on the Wilpons.  So they at least deserved this little self imposed review.

We all know, Terry Collins would not have lived to manage another game had he lifted Johan Santana during his no-hitter.  Fan wrath would have warranted Coach’s placement into witness protection if he had.  It is becoming increasingly evident however, the no-hitter played a large or small role in Johan’s present state.  But I do still ponder, and believe it is fair to question, why the organization let Johan Santana pitch regular intervals so early in the season?  And, that, my fellow Mets fans, is not hindsight, as you can clearly see.  Regardless, there’s a new question to ponder now.

How do the Mets handle Johan Santana moving forward, considering there are roughly seven weeks left in the season, and contention is no longer part of the fan’s collective vocabulary?  The obvious choices are A) – put him on a hard pitch count, B) – pitch him every sixth day, C) –  both A and B, or, D) – none of the above; just shut him down.

The wellness program the Mets put in place for Johan also depends on the club’s plans for him.  In that case, four more scenarios arise – Trade Johan over the Winter; He anchors the 2013 rotation; Mets trade him at 2013 trade deadline; or Mets let him walk away as a free agent after season ends.  Where have we heard all this before?

In the immediate future, if the Mets have any designs of trading Johan Santana in the off-season, they had better start minimizing any further wear and tear on his shoulder now by taking an overly proactive approach before the season expires.  But if he is to be the anchor of their staff next season, then they need to start managing him much more carefully and design a regimen that ceases to place emphasis on the 2012 regular season.

In either case, Johan Santana’s time here in New York continues to devolve towards Frank Viola status.  Both came to the Mets from the Twins with whom they were Cy Young Award winning pitchers.  Both cost a bevy of minor league prospects the Mets never really missed.  Then both went on to endure substantially inconsequential stints in New York because the team around them deteriorated dramatically between the time they arrived, and the dwindling days of their stay.