What Johan Santana’s Return to the Mound Means

It seemed unlikely that the Mets would be the center of baseball attention any time during the 2011 season. They made a splash by hiring Sandy Alderson and his cast of familiar faces to run the front office, but they made mostly small moves this winter, knowing that the pieces just weren’t there to contend. The biggest buzz most of us expected was a potential Jose Reyes trade, and even then the buzz would be Reyes, not necessarily the entire Mets team.

That changed, of course, when this week’s New Yorker dropped on Monday morning. Within its pages team owner Fred Wilpon was quoted as saying some less than flattering things about his team and its players. As if that weren’t enough, the latest issue of Sports Illustrated also features and article about Wilpon, in which he talks about the team’s financial woes. They’re taking losses, and while they have money coming off the books this winter they might not be able to reinvest all of it. That might make things tougher for the 2012 team as well.

The Mets did get some good news, though, that can perhaps inspire optimism for the coming off-season and even 2012. According to ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, injured ace Johan Santana threw off a full mound on Monday, for the first time since he struck out Omar Infante on September 2, 2010. His return this season could help the Mets considerably.

As Tom Verducci notes in the SI article, the Mets about about $64 million coming off the books after this season. According to Cot’s, they have $66.8 million committed to six players next season. Wilpon’s comments seem to indicate that he’d like to keep the payroll around $100 million. That doesn’t give them much room to work with, especially considering the arbitration raises they’ll owe Mike Pelfrey and Angel Pagan, and then salaries to fill out the other 17 roster spots. It could make for some interesting moves, which will make the Mets a team to watch at the deadline.

Wilpon’s comments about David Wright — “not a superstar” — have the attention on him. He makes $15.25 million in 2012 before the Mets can either pick up his $16 million option for 2013 or buy him out for $1 million. If they think he’s less than a superstar making something resembling a superstar’s salary, they could try to trade him to a team that thinks more highly of him. Yet he’s not the most noticeable financial outlay for the Mets. Jason Bay makes $18.13 million in both 2012 and 2013 before the Mets can buy him out for $3 million. But at this point he’s essentially untradable. That leaves one more big salary on the ledger: Santana’s.

After this year Santana has $55 million remaining on his contract, including a $5.5 million buyout for 2014. It is clear that no team will take on the entirety of that contract. The question facing the Mets is, at what point does eating salary make sense? For instance, does it benefit them to eat, say, half of Santana’s remaining salary in order to ship him out? Or would it work out better for them to just keep him at that point and hope that he helps them contend? I’m not sure where the exact cutoff will fall, but one definitely exists.

While the Mets certainly might contend in future years, having Santana around doesn’t necessarily help them. Yes, he has ranked among the top pitchers in baseball for years. Even in his three years with the Mets, 2008 through 2010, he has been an elite pitcher. Among starters with at least 450 IP in those three years he ranks fifth in ERA, despite a FIP and an xFIP considerably higher. And, despite the injury issues he faced, he still ranked 24th in innings pitched during that span. The shoulder injury certainly puts everything in question, but that’s why his return this year is important. If he can reestablish himself at somewhere near his previous level, he might have some interested parties.

Of course, the Mets only really benefit if they find a team that will take on a good chunk of Santana’s salary. After all, they’re not trading the player so much as they are his salary, which would account for a quarter of a $100 million payroll. That could leave them with few suitors, though a team such as the Yankees, currently filling the back end of their rotation with prayers, could be inclined to take on some of Santana’s salary if he proves himself in, say, a dozen starts this year. The free agent class is thin, which could further increase interest in Santana’s services.

This entire exercise is predicated on the idea that Santana does make it back this year, and he looks something like his old self in the second half. It’s far from a guarantee, but if he does it will greatly benefit the Mets. If he doesn’t come back, they’re essentially stuck with having a quarter of their payroll invested in an ineffective pitcher. If he does return to form, they have at least a chance of trading him and gaining some flexibility, even if they have a limited number of potential partners. While it made sense for them to pay $24 million a year for an ace while they had a $150 million payroll, it makes a degree less sense to have him with a $100 million payroll.

If Fred Wilpon truly does want to give Sandy Alderson flexibility this coming off-season, chances are he’ll have to trade one of his high-priced contracts. Wright has been the focus of the attention since the New Yorker article, but if the Mets can find a taker for Santana, trading him makes a degree more sense. Wright will still be only 29 next year, and could potentially help the Mets for the next five to seven years if they choose to keep him around. Santana will be 33 in 2012 and probably won’t be around after the Mets inevitably buy out his option. Wouldn’t seeking a trade for him, while eating even half his salary, make more sense than trading away a younger, useful position player?

We hoped you liked reading What Johan Santana’s Return to the Mound Means by Joe Pawlikowski!

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Tony Reagins
Tony Reagins

Does someone have Sandy’s phone number? Thanks.