Is Johan Santana Having A Great Season The Worst Case Scenario For The Mets?

Are you serious, bro? - The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

It might seem to go against conventional reasoning, but do we want Johan Santana to not be as great as he can theoretically be in 2013?

For a while, it looked as if Johan Santana already had his ticket to Cooperstown punched and ready to go. From 2004, when he became a full-time starting pitcher with the Twins, until the end of the decade, Santana was the best pitcher in baseball, eclipsing Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Roy Oswalt, Brandon Webb, and all of the other pitching greats of the time in just about every single category. Since then, however, injuries and various other maladies have ravaged the Venezuelan lefty. Beginning in 2009, Santana has undergone numerous surgeries, including repairing a torn left knee meniscus, removing bone chips from his left elbow, and repairing a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, causing him to miss considerable time. All of that, plus age and natural wear-and-tear on his body, contributed to him being a lesser pitcher.

Team Record ERA ERA+ IP K K/9 BB BB/9 fWAR rWAR
Twins 93-44 3.22 141 1308.2 1381 9.5 607 2.5 35.4 34.0
Mets 46-34 3.18 127 717.0 607 7.6 203 2.5 12.0 14.6

When Johan finally took the mound again in 2012 after more than a year of rehabilitation, he looked completely rejuvenated. Santana appeared a little shaky through his first handful of games, but he hit his stride at the end of April and for nearly two months was pitching like one of the best hurlers in the game. From April 24, his first good start of the season, through the end of June, Johan threw 86 innings and had a 2.60 ERA with 80 strikeouts (8.3 K/9), 27 walks (2.8 BB/9), and allowed batters to hit .201/.265/.348 against him. From June 6, when he collided with Reed Johnson, until he was shut down on August 17, Santana was a very different pitcher: he threw 19 innings and had a 15.63 ERA with 18 strikeouts (8.5 K/9), six walks (3.0 BB/9), and allowed batters to hit .448/.471/.771 against him.

Confirmed as the Mets' Opening Day starting pitcher, Johan Santana is in his last year of a lucrative contract that he signed with the team in 2008 when he was acquired from the Twins. Given the position the Mets are in, logic would seem to dictate that, should Santana get off to another hot start, he be traded away for prospects who would be able to contribute to the team in the near- or long-term future. Sandy Alderson did just that, trading long-time outfield stalwart Carlos Beltran for blue-chip pitching prospect Zack Wheeler in what can only be described as a coup. Like Beltran, there are a few significant hurdles that would need to be cleared before a potential Santana trade occurs.

In 2013, Johan will be making $25.5 million dollars. To put that in perspective, that's more guaranteed money than the Houston Astros have for their entire roster. Even prorated for a half-season's worth of pitching, that is still a considerable amount of money allocated to one player, and there are numerous teams in both the National League and American League that might not be able to take on that kind of responsibility without the Mets kicking in some or all of that remaining sum. The less willing the Mets are to cover the remaining money owed to Santana, the smaller the pool of potential trade partners is going to be.

Next, Santana has a full no-trade clause. In order for Johan to be traded, he will have to waive his no-trade clause. If the team involved in trade negotiations with the Mets is a favorable team to go to, like the San Francisco Giants were to Carlos Beltran, getting Santana to waive the clause in his contract would likely be a simple formality. If the team(s) involved in trade negotiations with the Mets are unfavorable for whatever reason, and Santana is not predisposed to waiving his no-trade clause, this complicates things.

In 2013, Johan will be making $25.5 million dollars. To put that in perspective, that's more guaranteed money than the Houston Astros have for their entire roster.

Finally, and most important, is the 2014 option written into his contract. As things stand now, it is a club option that can be bought out for $5.5 million dollars. Under certain circumstances, the option becomes a player option:

  1. Santana wins the Cy Young Award any time between 2008 and 2013 and finishes second or third in another season during that time frame; or
  2. Santana places second or third in Cy Young Award voting for three seasons between 2008 and 2013; or
  3. Santana is on the active roster for the final 30 days of the 2013 season and:
    1. Pitches 215+ innings in 2013; or
    2. Pitches 420+ innings in 2012 and 2013 combined; or
    3. Pitches 630+ innings in 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined

To date, Santana has only garnered Cy Young Award votes once, in 2008, when he placed 3rd, behind Tim Lincecum and Brandon Webb. Given that he would only have one season to do so, Santana cannot place second or third in Cy Young voting for three seasons, so ‘B' gets eliminated from the pool. That leaves us with the option in Santana's contract turning into a player option if:

  1. Santana wins the Cy Young Award any time between 2008 and 2013 and finishes second or third in another season during that time frame; or
  2. Santana places second or third in Cy Young Award voting for three seasons between 2008 and 2013; or
  3. Santana is on the active roster for the final 30 days of the 2013 season and:
    1. Pitches 215+ innings in 2013; or
    2. Pitches 420+ innings in 2012 and 2013 combined; or
    3. Pitches 630+ innings in 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined


USA Today Sports

Given the number of innings that he has pitched over the last few years, some of the innings pitched incentives are out of reach as well. He did not pitch at all in 2011, and threw only 117 innings in 2012. This makes him pitching 630+ innings in 2011-2013 combined completely unreachable, and pitching 420+ innings in 2012 and 2013 unreachable. That leaves us with the following ways for Santana's club option to become a player option:

  1. Santana wins the Cy Young Award any time between 2008 and 2013 and finishes second or third in another season during that time frame; or
  2. Santana places second or third in Cy Young Award voting for three seasons between 2008 and 2013; or
  3. Santana is on the active roster for the final 30 days of the 2013 season and:
    1. Pitches 215+ innings in 2013; or
    2. Pitches 420+ innings in 2012 and 2013 combined; or
    3. Pitches 630+ innings in 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined

Is it conceivable that Santana wins the 2013 Cy Young Award, and/or throws 215+ innings? None of the leading projection systems and/or analysts seem to think so:

Projection Innings ERA Strikeouts Walks
James 185.0 3.50 162 61
Oliver 100.0 3.68 85 31
PECOTA 131.0 3.43 109 33
Steamer 151.0 4.26 116 50
ZiPS 94.3 4.01 77 29

In none of the above projections does Santana sniff 215+ innings pitched, or numbers good enough to win a Cy Young Award. The future is, of course, not set in stone, and projections are regularly shown to get it wrong — no projection predicted R.A. Dickey to be as good as he was, let alone good enough to win a Cy Young Award.

For the purpose of this thought experiment, let's pretend that Santana is on pace to eclipse 215 innings and is pitching like a Cy Young caliber pitcher as the trade deadline approaches. Shouldn't his excellent on-the-field performance make trading the crafty lefty easier?

The option in question comes at the price of $25 million dollars. If left in the hands of a baseball team, it would almost certainly be exorcized by exercising the $5.5 million dollar buy-out that it comes attached to. That much money being allocated to a single player, and a single player who has a history of missing playing time because of various injuries to boot, can be quite debilitating. If left in the hands of the player, it would likely be activated. Even at the cost of a potential multi-year contract on the free-agent market, a $25 million dollar single season payday is not something to be casually tossed away — especially for a player who is entering the latter stages of his career and isn't exactly worth that much money anymore (if ever) based on production.

It is certainly something to scare off suitors. As mentioned earlier, the Mets could (and likely will) have to shell out money to cover the remaining portion of Santana's 2013 contract in order to trade Johan. If his 2013 performance is such that his option is likely to transform into a player option that will almost certainly be activated, the Mets would likely have to kick in that much more money just to be rid of him. Though there will be a lot more money (supposedly) to spend in the 2013-2014 off-season, money allotted to paying Santana cuts into that. To maximize the amount of money they can spend on free agents, they're going to want Johan Santana to not have access to that option and exercise it. In order for that not to happen, Johan Santana cannot be great. We must root for him to merely be good, or perhaps even just tolerable.

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