Monday, April 1, 2013

Santana, Down for the Count, Maybe Career

By Jeff Kallman

Some people thought New York Mets manager Terry Collins was somewhere between nuts and flakes to let Johan Santana try to finish what turned out to be the first no-hitter in club history last June. Wasn't Santana on the comeback trail after missing 19 months, including all of the 2011 season recuperating from surgery to repair a torn left shoulder anterior capsule?

Santana wanted to finish the game in the worst way possible, and Collins would admit he agonized before letting his man try for it. Agonized? This is a manager who takes crap from no one, even if he's not even half the martinet he was managing in Houston and Anaheim, yet Collins broke to tears when his man finished the job.

It took Santana 134 pitches to complete the gem. He struggled over his following ten starts, then went down for the rest of 2011 when a) Chicago's Reed Johnson stepped on his ankle during an infield play, and b) it was revealed subsequently that he suffered back trouble. Now Santana is looking at a possible second surgery to repair a re-torn left shoulder anterior capsule. It would take him out of the entire 2013 season at minimum. And it could mean the end of his pitching career at maximum.

Santana is one of nine pitchers who've had shoulder capsule surgery since 1996, when Bret Saberhagen, a former Met himself, underwent the procedure. Six including Santana — Mark Prior, Dallas Braden (he of the Mother's Day perfect game a couple of years ago), Chris Young, Chien-Ming Wang, and Pedro Feliciano are the others — haven't pitched a full major league season since undergoing the procedure. Three (Prior, Braden, Feliciano) haven't re-appeared in the Show at all since the surgeries. Comebacks from one such surgery are tricky enough. If Santana undergoes the surgery again, he'd be the first to go there a second time but his hard prospects for a pitching comeback — he'd be 35-years-old for the 2014 season, if he returns — would be about the width of a thread.

This is just what Santana and the Mets didn't need after everything else.

On apparent doctor's orders, Santana took the offseason off, literally, resting his body entirely following two years worth of working his way back from the first capsule injury. The problem was that the Mets and their coaching staff, who acknowledge the orders for his complete offseason rest, spoke up about "disappointment" that Santana did it anyway. General manager Sandy Alderson was foolish enough to say it in more blunt terms: Santana showed up for spring training "out of shape" and "not as up to speed" as the Mets thought he should have arrived.

A competitor who likes neither losing nor duplicity, something true of him his entire career, Santana took it out in camp. He worked what's been called an unauthorized bullpen session in early March to prove he was healthy again — a session he did before the Mets expected him to do it, and, as Newsday's David Lennon writes, "with a ferocity that surprised the staff." After a 15 March session, alas, his lower back acted up again and he was expected to be on the DL to open the season, anyway.

Nobody can say for certain whether those two bullpens, especially the pride-driven premature session, did the dirty deed on the shoulder capsule. But there went the Mets' possible plans to trade a rejuvenated Santana by the July non-waiver deadline before he could finish his walk year and test the free agency pool come October.

There, too, possibly, went Santana's hopes of getting one more significant payday, maybe from the Mets, maybe somewhere else, after a comeback 2013. Returning from one shoulder capsule surgery is testy at best. Trying to come back from a second, if Santana undergoes the procedure, could be considered somewhere between difficult and impossible. Could be.

Because he's Johan Santana — and because the name meant the arguable best pitcher in baseball for the second half of the Aughts — the smart money says he'll get another chance if that's what he desires, according to Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran and just about everyone else with a spot of sense. That doesn't mean he'll pitch even the way he did up to and including last year's no-hitter again.

If you look at things this way, you can argue that his shoulder and other injuries have probably taken Santana off the Hall of Fame track. He might have been baseball's best pitcher over the second half of the Aughts, but he comes up shy enough of a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer if you take his career as it happens to be at this writing. As Jay Jaffe (SI) points out, Santana's wins above a replacement-level player total 49.1 overall and 43.1 for his peak value; the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher compiles 68.1 overall and 47.7 for his peak.

Santana at this moment is 75th on the list for starters all time, ahead of Sandy Koufax at 82, but Koufax's peak value — the very thing that made him a Hall of Famer — includes three Cy Young Awards in an era when it was given to one pitcher across the board, a Most Valuable Player award (he won that plus his first Cy Young in 1963), and a deadly World Series record in a time when there was no divisional play and pre-Series postseason play: Koufax's 0.97 ERA in 57 World Series innings was simply staggering. Santana has never pitched in a World Series, which isn't entirely his fault, but he has a postseason ERA of 3.97 and, in his only League Championship Series (2002, against the Angels), he was strafed for a 10.80 ERA (four earned runs in 3.1 total innings).

There have been great pitchers who pulled up short of Hall of Fame-great, and Santana is likely one of them. He has three league ERA titles and one pitching triple crown win (2006); he led his league in strikeouts three straight seasons (2004-2006), in lowest walks and hits per inning pitched four straight seasons (2004-2007), and in strikeouts per nine innings three straight (also 2004-2006). He was likely as much a victim of his teams' performances as he was of his health as his career went on.

When he was traded to the Mets in February 2008 and signed to the deal that expires after 2013, Santana responded by leading the National League in ERA (2.53) while winning 16 games and losing 7. The same season, Santana had 10 no-decision games. In nine of those games, he pitched well enough to win (giving up three or fewer earned runs); in five of those nine, the Mets went on to lose. He might have finished with 25 wins if the game results equaled his pitching in those games and beaten Tim Lincecum in pitching WAR on the season (Lincecum led the league with 7.9; Santana finished right behind him with 7.1); he might have been the leading winner overwhelmingly (Brandon Webb of Arizona led with 22, the league's only 20-game winner that year); he'd have had a .734 winning percentage over the .696 with which he finished.

But he also pitched much of the final half — including a dazzling, 2-0, three-hit shutout at the Florida Marlins while the Philadelphia Phillies were busy clinching the NL East — with a torn meniscus in his left knee, undergoing surgery in October. Which nobody may have thought much about while he was spending that September going 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA for the month.

His real trouble as a Met (he'd always had arm issues as a Twin) began in 2009: he was forced to shut down for the season in late August after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove chips from his pitching elbow. In late 2010 he suffered the first shoulder capsule injury, and who knew how long he'd pitched with it despite his 2.98 season ERA?

The likely conclusion: if his career is indeed over, and it may well be, unless he proves a trans-dimensional medical miracle, a combination of team efforts and his own body will probably keep Johan Santana out of the Hall of Fame. But they shouldn't keep anyone from remembering that he was a truly great pitcher at a peak that dissipated too painfully, too soon.

Nor should anyone label Santana a contract bust as a Met. Maybe they did overpay a bit in dollars and prospects when nobody else was trying all that hard to get him. But the Mets needed a Santana-level pitcher after that 2007 collapse, and when his health allowed he produced pretty much as you'd have expected him to produce. It wasn't Santana's fault that the Mets had only one winning season with him on the roster.

And, if nothing else, this was a great pitcher who also pitched the first no-hitter in Met history. The question now haunting the Mets, if not baseball itself, is whether Santana has ultimately sacrificed his career to do it, or whether it merely helped bring his health issues to the boil that means his day is done.

We love to watch men with the mindsets of bulldogs on the field or on the mound. We don't always stop to think that the very thing we admire about them could be the very thing that finishes them before their time.

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