East Coast Bias: Johan Santana Is A Met!

Welcome to the biggest news in New York City to completely fly under the radar. While the Super Bowl hypefest was busy, the Mets went and traded four of their top seven prospects to Minnesota for Johan Santana. Within the negotiating window, they gave Santana a $6M raise for this season in addition to a five-year extension worth about $113M and a team option for 2014 worth $25M which becomes a player option if he wins a Cy Young sometime between now and then.

Thanks Citigroup.

I think this was a move that the Mets had to make to wash the bitter taste of the last two years out of their fans’ mind. People could rationalize the loss to the Cardinals even if it hurt. It was a seven-game series… mistakes were made on both ends… it happens. Last year was unforgivable. Last year was the type of year that books are written about and are given proper names that people remember. For the rest of eternity, Mets fans will call 2007 The Choke. There was no excuse for it. The team didn’t even try. They simply sent an apology letter to fans on their mailing list.

Fans have watched this offseason as the Mets missed all the big name trades. Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera went to Detroit. Dan Haren went to Arizona (and if you want to talk about an early NL West favorite, Haren/Webb/Johnson could be brutal if Randy stays somewhat injury free this season). We had to deal with the New York Media telling us, in no uncertain terms, that obviously Johan Santana would want to go to Boston or the Yankees. Never has the Mets 2nd-class-citizen tag in New York been more obvious than these last few weeks. As soon as the trade was announced Mike and the Mad Dog wasted no time dismissing the notion that Santana may have wanted to go to the Mets. Why? Why would the guy not want to go to a team where he was going to get the exact same amount of money AND have an easier path to the post-season every year. Do you know what the Mets don’t have in their division? Another big market team that finishes with 90-wins every season. The Phillies are the best other team in the division. The Braves just lost John Schuerholz and are likely going to be on the decline for a few years as the old guy’s contracts filter out. The Nationals are in neutral until their new stadium gets built. The Marlins are still a couple years away from being absolutely terrifying. What in the world would be the rationale for him wanting to stay in the American League? The desire to continue pitching to a DH? The desire to have a 3.50 ERA instead of a 1.98? I’m not saying that Santana didn’t want to stay in the AL… I’m just saying that dismissing the notion that he might have wanted to come to the NL and put a solid stranglehold on “best pitcher of this era” isn’t something so easily dismissed. It was much the same as the notion of A-Rod going to the Cubs. More than half his games in hitter-friendly parks? He might have hit 90 home runs in a season.

So the management did what they could. They waited out the Yankees and the Red Sox. They waited until they were the only game in town and swooped in with a semi-crappy offer to guarantee themselves one-on-one time with Johan Santana. Of course, there were some quick to use the “selling their future” and “destroying their farm” in reference to the Santana trade but I don’t really agree with them. Here’s what they gave up:

Carlos Gomez: A corner outfield prospect who will probably be speedy enough to take over for Torii Hunter. Gomez had 125 major league at-bats last season and put up a line of .268/.288/.304. He really faded down the stretch of last season when the league started to catch up to him. That said, even if he turned out to be a great player, he was going to be mostly blocked off for the next few seasons. The one prospect rated higher than him is a corner outfielder who will likely take over for Moises Alou in 2009, Carlos Beltran is on the books until (I think) 2012, and they have a cost-controlled Ryan Church through 2012. They signed Endy Chavez through his last arbitration year until 2009 to be their fourth outfielder and will probably keep giving him fan-favorite contracts for as long as he’ll take them. Gomez might turn out to be a fine player in Minnesota, but the Mets really had nowhere to play him.

Philip Humber: Mike Pelfrey destroyed his usefulness as a trading chip by going 3-8 with a 1.7something WHIP last season. The Twins obviously wanted an almost-ready prospect to take Santana’s place. Humber went 11-9 last season in AAA and seemed to be someone who the Mets didn’t have a ton of faith in. He’s been described as “a couple ticks down from Mike Mussina.” I’m OK with this.

Kevin Mulvey: Mulvey may turn out to be the dark horse in the deal. He only pitched one game in Rookie league before he was promoted to AA in 2006. Last season he went 12-10 between AA and AAA with a 1.21 WHIP and a 3.20 ERA. His team gave up 18 earned runs around him. I couldn’t pick the kid out of a line-up, but early results are good.

Deolis Guerra: Almost not even worth discussing at this point. Guerra is 18 years old and spent last season in A and A+ ball. We won’t even know exactly what he’ll turn into until 2010.

All of these guys are decent prospects, but that’s all they are… prospects. Not one of those guys was enough to break a deal for Johan Santana. Of all of them, the team may miss Humber the most in the near term. The other two guys have been in the system for two years. The Mets have three picks in the first 33 in the draft this season (Thanks Tommy!). They can be replaced. It should also be noted that the Mets farm system wasn’t exactly in prime condition anyway. Giving up four of their top seven prospects is orders-of-magnitude lower than the A’s or the Marlins doing the same.

The Mets sent four decent players out of their farm system and in return got the exclusive right to the best pitcher in baseball for the next six years. It’s the Pedro deal. There is almost no universe (barring injury) in which this is a bad deal for the Mets. It cost them the money they are getting from Citibank for the next six or seven years, a corner outfielder they’ll never use, and three pitching prospects. The only way this turns out to be bad for the Mets is if Santana breaks down far earlier than history would dictate or if Humber, Mulvey, and Guerra all wind up being front line starters that anchor the Twins’ rotation for the next 12 or 15 years. Lots and lots of pitching prospect data compiled over the years suggest that will not happen. At the very worst, they may have given up the next Johan Santana for Johan Santana. The Mets are doing their best to load up on this season to at least get themselves TO the World Series. It’s quickly becoming obvious that National League Clubs are going to have to spend a ton of money on pitching to counteract the American League’s natural advantage of having an extra, huge bat in the line-up. I have a whole post in draft format about the need to entirely drop the DH in the World Series and Interleague Play, but finding the stats I need has been a pain. It’s based on the fact that it’s patently unfair to force an NL team to counter a $10M/year position with a bench player in any format… especially in the World Series.

I digress. Santana was the best case scenario for the Mets. Sports writers last year were quick to ask whether or not Santana’s bad second half last season was an indication of a downswing. I’ll let the FJM guys do the research I was going to do:

His team had a .721 OPS. That’s 13th out of 14 teams. The league — the American League, mind you — batted .225 off him with a .273 OBP. He had 55 more Ks than anyone on the Mets. And this was a down year for Santana.

The moral of the story: if a sportswriter is going to use the argument that Santana had a “down year” because he went 15-13, he should immediately lose his license to write about baseball. The Mets picked up a guy who can likely expect to blow through the NL for the first half of the season and will probably see his ERA drop by a full run. He’s a “six-inning” pitcher in the AL, which translates to a “seven-inning” pitcher in the NL. He’s the top of the order guy who the Mets didn’t have last year. He’s a guy who’s rallying the fans before ever throwing a pitch as a Met. He’s a guy who won’t press to justify his contract because he already knows it’s justified.

As for the rest; the Mets are looking to go into the season with a rotation of Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, John Maine, and Oliver Perez. Mike Pelfrey will likely be their sixth starter to fill in for the inevitable El Duque injury. If Pelfrey shows something, I could envision a scenario where Duque is sent to the bullpen to shut games down for Johan or Pedro. The offense should still be strong.

It’s still the Phillies division to lose. I have to admit, though, the first two sports’ months of 2008 have been fantastic.