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How Can The Mets Replace Johan Santana?

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Johan Santana will have surgery today to fix the torn anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder. The procedure will be performed by Dr. David Altchek, who first diagnosed the injury that was later corroborated by Dr. James Andrews, the Jay-Z of reconstructive surgery. Reports on Santana's recovery prognosis vary widely, from several months to a half-year before he'll be able to throw at full strength. He's not the pitcher the Mets thought they were trading for three offseasons ago--he's three years older, for starters, and has had three straight years of diminishing velocity and strikeout rate regression to boot--but on balance he's still the best starter the Mets have and he gives them the proverbial "chance to win every fifth day".

The good news is that the Mets don't have to find a replacement of commensurate value to Santana's in order to compete in 2011. Of course, I'm beginning with the premise that the Mets can compete in 2011, which probably isn't as farfetched as it seems given how teams regularly undergo ten-game swings in the standings from year to year. The Mets may not have a lot of budgetary flexibility, but that doesn't mean they can't improve substantially between now and April. All of the particulars regarding how they might accomplish that remain to be seen and discussed, and will likely be an article (or series of articles) saved for another day.

I think we can safely assume that R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, and Mike Pelfrey will comprise three-fifths of next year's starting rotation. Dickey has been the Mets' best pitcher this season--and an endless inspiration for creativity here for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball--and he is arbitration eligible for the final time this offseason. The Mets could very well negotiate a multi-year deal with Dickey this winter, but either scenario ends with him in a Mets uniform in April. Niese and Pelfrey obviously aren't going anywhere. They're both young and inexpensive to varying degrees, and whether either ever becomes a star is immaterial because each is still likely to contribute positively to next year's team.

The last spot in the rotation could go to Dillon Gee, who has looked good against two terrible teams in his first two big league starts. That spot could also go to Hisanori Takahashi, but probably won't because the Mets are convinced, perhaps mistakenly, that Takahashi is more valuable out of the bullpen. It could also go to a second- or third-tier free agent like Ted Lilly or Kevin Millwood. Or to a an injury flier like Brandon Webb. Carl Pavano could be interesting--he has been great for the Twins this year (seriously)--but he's posting a career-best ground ball rate and if that erodes a bit I'm not sure his minuscule walk rate will be enough to support his troublingly low strikeout rate. At all events, the point is that there are a lot of pitchers who could adequately fill the role of fifth starter on the 2011 Mets for very little money.

Which brings us back around to Santana, for whom the most sanguine of outlooks has him ready by Opening Day, while the less optimistic forecasters predict he'll miss the first month or three of the season. If we call Santana a 4.5-win player--that's basically what he has been if we average the last three seasons of fWAR and rWAR--and if he misses the first half of the season, the Mets will have to find 2-3 wins to make up for his absence. Folks who have watched a lot of Yankees games this season--or who scream until they're blue in the face that some players simply can't handle the "pressure" of playing in New York--may not want to hear that one of the best options for the Mets will be Javier Vazquez.

Even with his replacement-level performance across town this season, Vazquez has still been worth better than three wins per year over the past three years. He has seen his strikeout rate dip and his walk and home run rates surge with the Yanks, but if you were ever going to construct a starting rotation to suit Citi Field, Vazquez would be near the top of the list of candidates. In leaving the Yankees for the Mets, he'd be leaving one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in baseball--particularly for left-handed batters--for one of the most stifling home run environments in the game. That's no small consideration for a pitcher who consistently has among the highest fly ball rates in the league.

What's more, Vazquez is coming off a terrible year with the Yankees, and while I'll admit that isn't usually something you look for in a free agent hurler, in this case it could work to the advantage of the Mets and their limited payroll flexibility. If Vazquez had a repeat of his 2009 season this season he could reasonably be looking at a three- or four-year deal for $15+ million annually. Now he might be more likely to get a two-year deal for closer to $10 million per year. When Cliff Lee takes Vazquez's spot in the Yankees rotation this offseason for six years and $120 million, the Mets should be ecstatic to get Vazquez for a fraction of that. That may say as much about the disparity in the respective bankrolls and outlooks of these two teams as it does about Lee and Vazquez, but the fact remains that while the Mets probably won't have the money to pony up to get Lee, they can get a damned good pitcher for far less and still have some money left over to patch--or at least try to patch--some holes in the starting lineup.

If Santana really does miss half of the 2011 season, Vazquez's production could very nearly make up for it. The difference between Santana and Vazquez over a span of three months might only be a win or so. Now, most teams aren't in a position to scoff at a win--the Mets certainly aren't--but if you can distill the net loss of missing Santana for a signifiant stretch down to a mere win or two, we're really only dealing with a mini-crisis and not the full-blown disaster this might have seemed like at first blush.

The Mets still have a lot of problems to address between now and the start of next season, but recognizing that they don't truly have to replace all of Johan Santana's production--and that they can come awfully close to doing so anyway without resorting to lunacy--is the first step in what could be a tempered and rational approach to addressing some of the team's on-field issues this winter. Or, you know, not that.