Signed as an amateur free agent in 1995, Johan Santana was selected by the Florida Marlins in the 199 Rule 5 draft and promptly traded to the Minnesota Twins. Like Pedro Beato last year, Santana stuck around with the Twins in 2000 despite awful results out of the bullpen because the team wanted to keep him. He then split time between the rotation and bullpen between his debut and 2003, but once he became a full-time starting pitcher, was one of the best in the game. Over the course of the 2004 through 2007 seasons, Santana racked up 983 strikeouts in 912.1 innings and posted a 2.89 ERA. With free agency looming as the 2008 season approached, the Twins traded Santana to the Mets, who promptly signed him to a long-term contract.
In his first three seasons with the Mets, Santana was brilliant, even though his peripherals were not nearly as good as they were in Minnesota. Over those three seasons, Santana’s 2.85 ERA was fourth among starting pitchers in the National League, trailing only Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Tim Lincecum. While Johan’s 3.59 FIP and 3.91 xFIP over the same span suggest he should have fared worse, he did not.
The major problem with Santana of late was, of course, the health of his pitching arm. His 2009 season ended prematurely, but he only needed bone spurs removed from his left elbow at the time. Santana returned in 2010, but once again his season ended early. He eventually needed to undergo surgery to repair his torn anterior capsule, an operation for which there is no established timetable for return. There was some hope that Santana would pitch for the Mets in 2011, but it came as no surprise that he missed the entire season. The high point of his recovery last year was making a couple of minor-league rehabilitation starts.
There is no guarantee that Johan Santana will appear for the Mets this year. He has not encountered any setbacks in the very early phase of spring training, but it would be surprising to see Santana throw even 175 innings this year. If Santana pitches this year, there will rightfully be questions about his effectiveness. If Santana can return to the mound and pitch even nearly as well as he did in his first three years with the Mets, it would be a pleasant surprise. And if he defies expectations and matches his production from those years, it just might be the highlight of the Mets’ season. I’ll believe Santana is back if he makes his scheduled start on Opening Day, but I’ll hold out hope for his return until there’s news confirming otherwise.