Reevaluating Johan Santana: part 1 of 2

The Ultimate Scapegoat
Can Ivan Nova Be a Viable Fourth Starter?
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By now it is nearly impossible to discuss the Yankees’ search for starting pitching without saying something like, “It’s no secret that the Yankees need starting pitching help”. It’s all been said. Even if Andy Pettitte postpones his date with retirement another year and returns for the 2011 campaign it’s likely that the team could still be looking for help on the trade market this summer. Ivan Nova is a fine fifth starter option, but it would really be nice if he was the sixth starter, an option in case of injury or a terrible outbreak of Bad A.J. The problem is that the trade market is a bit weak. There’s no Cliff Lee on the market this summer. Wandy Rodriguez looked like a decent target, but the Astros just extended him for three years. Gavin Floyd and Chris Carpenter could be very good options, but a lot needs to happen for these teams to put the players on the market. Plan B might be patience, but there’s a fair amount of contingency contained therein.

One trade option is Johan Santana. Mike addressed the possibility of acquiring Santana in this mailbag piece several weeks ago, outlining all the reasons why the Yankees shouldn’t attempt to acquire Santana: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, his performance is in decline, and he’s expensive. All of these things are true, and yet I’m going to attempt a possibly quixotic reexamination of his desirability. This will be a two part piece. Today we will examine the nature of his injury and his perceived decline over the past 3 years and tomorrow we’ll look at his contract status and try to evaluate whether he makes sense for the Yankees as a trade target.  It sounds crazy, and it’s going to take a decent amount of time to make the case. All good things take time though, unless we’re talking about a Chipotle burrito, so try to stick it out with me. It’s not like there’s anything better to do on a freezing weekend in January. What, you gonna watch curling?


When Johan Santana was injured late last summer it was initially reported that he had a strained pectoral. This was slightly deceiving, in that the location of the injury is not where one would expect. When you hear “strained pec”, you think about how sore you feel if you do too many bench press sets. As Will Carroll noted, the strain happened right where the muscle inserts into the humerus, just below the shoulder. You can see the picture here. Despite initial good news out the Mets camp, which cruelly raised the hopes of Mets fans, it turned out that Santana’s injury was far more serious. Santana had torn the anterior capsule in his left shoulder and required surgery to repair it. The injury is more rare than a Tommy John surgery, and Carroll went to sources to get more information about the actual nature of the injury:

The anterior capsule is the front lining of the shoulder joint which then attaches to the labrum and then to the bone. The capsule is torn with the labrum often with an acute traumatic shoulder dislocation. However, in baseball with repetitive throwing the anterior capsule can just gradually stretch out and eventually give a thrower pain and a feeling of weakness and a velocity loss. This repetitive microscopic tearing and stretching injury ultimately is what the thrower may describe as a “dead arm” The type of surgery performed is very similar to the open surgery pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe that was performed on Orel Hersheiser in the ’80s, but now with advances the same surgery can be done arthroscopically. However, the healing concepts are the same and therefore the rehabilitation can be very long to get back to high level throwing. Certainly 6-9 months is not unreasonable.

In order to repair this injury, the surgeon usually attempts to repair the ligaments arthoscopically. This was Dr. David Altchek’s goal with Santana, but he found that the tear was difficult to reach with an arthoscope and had to make an incision in the shoulder in order to repair it. This is obviously a less desirable method because it causes scar tissue, which can affect range of motion and lengthen the time of rehabilitation. As such, Santana may not return to the majors until the All-Star Break in 2011.  The final word from Carroll:

Santana will immediately begin rehab which is normally tagged at 20-28 weeks with an overlap of a throwing program towards the end. There’s no new info on whether there was anything found during the procedure that would change the outlook or prognosis. The first real sign we’ll get is likely to be when pitchers and catchers report to Port St. Lucie in February.

There is some speculation that Santana would not be fully recovered until well after he actually returns to the majors. Dr. Craig Levitz speculated that it would actually take 3 months, or 70-80 innings, after Santana’s return for him to regain his top form. He also noted that pitchers with this type of injury often return stronger than before, and that there is little risk of recurrence. As Levitz said, “Over all there is not a lot of damage to the shoulder with this injury…Once they close the hole in the soft tissue, it should never be a problem again.”


Things have been different for Johan Santana since he left the American League for the National League Mets. From 2002 to 2007 he had an ERA of 2.92, striking out almost 10 batters per nine innings and walking 2.2 per nine innings. His strikeout to walk ratio was a Lee-esque 4.38. Due to a very low hit rate, Santana’s WHIP hovered around 1.00. For good reason he was considered one of the preeminent pitchers in all of baseball. Contrary to expectations, Santana’s strikeout rate has dipped about two batters per nine innings since joining the Mets, and his walk rate has increased ever-so-slightly to close to 2.5. As such, he’s posted FIPs in the mid 3.50s since coming to New York, certainly respectable but not exactly the commensurate with the highest expectations fans might have had for the well-paid ace. This chart shows his performance as a Met compared to his career numbers:


Peripherals-wise, 2010 was Santana’s worst year. This is to be expected, given that he was coming off minor elbow surgery from the offseason prior and had his season cut short by the shoulder injury in September. One thing we don’t know is to what extent Santana pitched through discomfort or pain in 2010 before acknowledging his injury. We also don’t know if the gradual destruction of his shoulder ligaments was responsible for the decline in performance. The quote from Carroll’s source above seems to confirm that the pitcher will likely experience discomfort, weakness and a loss of velocity before actually needing surgery to repair the injury. It would be logical to expect a bounceback in velocity and strikeout stuff, but within any injury there is a large amount of risk and variance. It all hinges on how well Santana heals.

Despite the decline in performance, Santana was still a very valuable pitcher for the Mets in 2010. As a quick and easy comparison, his 3.5 fWAR in 199 innings in 2010 ranks similar to Shaun Marcum and Wandy Rodriguez’s performance. Over the past three years, despite an injury-shortened 2009, he’s accumulated 11.0 fWAR. This is more than Andy Pettitte, James Shields, John Lackey or Ted Lilly. If he had thrown 200 innings in 2009 it’s likely that he would register more fWAR in the past 3 years than Matt Cain, Roy Oswalt or Javier Vazquez. Of course, he didn’t throw 200 innings in 2009, so the point is moot. Regardless, Santana is still a valuable pitcher. Compare his performance data above with this data for CC Sabathia:

Sabathia and Santana both have fairly similar FIPs and ERAs, but Santana seems consistently able to outperform his FIP. They also have similar strikeout rates. Sabathia’s walk rates are slightly worse than Santana but CC generates far more groundballs than Santana, a clear boon in Yankee Stadium. Santana’s flyball tendencies play well in Citi Field but would likely be less advantageous in another venue. Sabathia’s numbers are also more impressive in the AL East. All things considered, Sabathia is a more desirable starter, but simply because Santana isn’t replicating his same level of dominance from years past doesn’t mean that he’s no longer valuable. Mid-3 FIP pitchers with good control and strikeout stuff don’t grow on trees.

Johan Santana isn’t what he once was, and he’s coming off a major injury with a long rehabilitation timeframe. There are good reasons for optimism though, reasons that don’t solely consist of fluff and happy thoughts. If Santana can pitch again like he has as a Met, he’ll have good value for his team. Of course, there’s the whole question of the contract, a question which I’ll address tomorrow morning before trying to ascertain how the trade market could firm up. See you then.

The Ultimate Scapegoat
Can Ivan Nova Be a Viable Fourth Starter?
  • Slugger27

    great piece, looking forward to the conclusion tomorrow. i imagine that any discussion involving this trade assumes the mets are eating some of the money.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      Can the Mets even eat money at this point?

      • Wrath Hannd of Prokchop

        STick and Stoness Steven. Reminder off to go on a biggest lodge towads a home run./

        • Slugger27

          i think i speak for most everyone when i write:


          • The Big City of Dreams

            Yea that went over everyone’s head

  • Dr. O

    Mets’ fans really can’t be TOO upset with how it worked out. They really only gave up money for him since The Mets got him for far less in prospects than what I recall The Twins wanting from The Yankees, Red Sox & Angels. He was really good for them that first season, and even if he had gone undefeated with a 0.01 ERA that team still would have choked away their seasons. It certainly sucks now though that he’s making Cy Young Ace bucks with so many question marks, but his diminished stuff (if that is indeed the case) still will play better in the NL so there’s hope for some salvaging that deal. Though The Wilpon’s financial situation probably means as long as they own the team Johan is taking up the biggest part of their budget along with Beltran.

    If The Yankees had made this deal we as fans would be way more crushed because they’d likely have surrendered at least Phil Hughes and or pre shoulder injury Joba and if the injuries still happened for Johan (in honesty you never know if circumstances had been different with another team, Yankees do tend to be a little more preventative with their pitcher’s arms than the Mets whom have yearly injury & rehab controversies) we’d be stuck watching a $20 mil starter struggle through the powerful AL lineups if he’s pitching at all….and no CC anchoring that World Series staff and probably as well no AJ (the good one) from the World Series.

  • Billion$Bullpen

    Do not want. I was in the camp that would have made the trade for him if all it took was Hughes, Ian K and Melky. At this point I would prefer signing Millwood (or do nothing and wait for a better option to emerge in season) than pay any money and get Santana. We do not need a guy who will live on the DL and make big $.

    Plus that whole rape accusation / situation is not something we need on this team. I am not saying every guy on the Yanks is a saint, but we dont seem to have a lot of guys getting in trouble on this team at the current time and I like that. I have been hard on Cash from time to time but it seems a lot of the role players and guys that are major pieces that we have brought in SEEM, to be good guys that are fun to root for as well as good players in some respect. (I know I am about to get blasted for this part)

    • Billion$Bullpen

      Meant to say would not want to pay any of the money due him and give up talent.

    • Ted Nelson

      “We do not need a guy who will live on the DL”

      Did you bother to read the article above?

  • Gonzo

    The best nwes is that nobody has to make a rock solid decision on Johan right now.

    That being said, everything depends on what the Mets would eat in $$$. I can’t imagine they would eat a lot of $$$ without expecting good prospects. That also works the other way around.

    Who knows though. A lot of GMs might nibble at the bait.

  • cranky

    Interesting and thoughtful analysis.
    No doubt, though, that Santana has been a huge waste of money for the Mets. At his salary level, you expect 200 innings per year, and, yes, WINS. Over the course of his six year contract, you expect 1200 innings and (being reasonable) 102 wins. He’s not going to come close to either of those figures.

    As for the Yanks trading for him, it is WAY too soon to be speculating about that. The guy is injured and may, or may not, come back to what he’s been. A healthy Santana–even now, at a somewhat diminished level from where he was a few years ago–is one of the better pitchers in the game. But this is a shoulder injury, and shoulder injuries are, for pitchers, ALWAYS serious.

    With the Mets now under great pressure because of the Madoff mess, they will, very likely, be in a “save money” mode. And their chances of winning in 2011, or even 2012, don’t look very good at all. So, they’d probably listen to offers for Santana. But, given his current status, and his history of injury over the past two years, he’s simply not worth the kind of young, grade-A talent he’d have brought back a few seasons ago.

  • KennyH123

    Given the Wilpons financial predicament, I am quite certain the Yanks, or anyone else, can get Santana for a bag of used BP balls right now.

    Having said that, it would still be a very bad idea.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for

      Totally agree and my first thought. Salary dumps will be the order of the day for the Mets for the foreseeable future, barring a massive infusion from a deep pocketed new partner (and perhaps even then…)

      I have no issue with picking him up for a bag of balls in general HOWEVER I would feel much better doing so if there weren’t quite so many years left on his deal. Two years no problem. I take that risk (it’s easy when I am spending Yankees money and there don’t appear to be too many big FA prizes on the horizon) but 3-4 years feels….problematic.

      Still, on balance, for a bag of balls, I do it..

  • Jess

    Given everything that has gone on with the Mets, Johan coming back in late July and topping out at 87mph, with little life on his change, sounds about right.

    Let’s just leave the Mets to their misery.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      They did say he was a head of schedule. I’m sure they were happy to hear that news. But boy can you imagine if he came back throwing 87mph OMG that would be the last straw.

      You have to think Jason Bay regrets coming to the Mets.

    • NJYankeeFan

      With his control and change up, I think he could still be a solid number 2-3 starter even at 87 MPH. Staying healthy and pitching 200 inning/year would be my biggest concern would be he’s now had several elbow and shoulder surgeries

  • NJYankeeFan

    One of Cashman’s best moves was not pulling the trigger on this trade. He’s never come close to his top years in Minnesota when he was racking up 7+ WAR per year and had he stayed in the AL, especially the AL east, his numbers over the last 3 years would be far worse.

    • Esteban

      And yet the MSM trashed Cashman at the time and blamed him for the Yankees not making the playoffs in 2008.

      • The Big City of Dreams

        Yea he was getting killed but he looks like a genius now especially with Johan breaking down.

        • JAG

          But will the MSM ever give him real credit for it?

  •!/YanktheMike yankthemike

    Aside from the myriad of other reasons that this would not be a good idea, you posit that it might take 70-80 inning after he returns to regain whatever his current “top form’ is. So if he returned at the end of june and you add 80 innings to that you are talking about him perhaps being good by september 1st. it was a well written piece, but i don’t see the point of having a Santana for the Yankees conversation.

    • Stephen Rhoads

      The 70-80 inning thing is one doctor’s projections. There’s really no way of knowing when he’s going to be completely healthy. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he’s back to form in August, but we really won’t know until it happens.

      The point of having a “Santana to the Yankees conversation” is the same for every trade target – to evaluate probability and weigh risk and reward. In my opinion the downside risk has been very clearly communicated, but I think there’s a bit of upside that people haven’t considered, and given how thin the 2011 trade market, Yankee rotation and 2012 SP free agent market are, I think it’s at least worth a thorough examination.

  • Steve (different one)

    I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but isn’t this the same injury that Posada suffered in 2008?

    To my amateur eye, his arm was never the same, but of course, he’s also 127 years old in Catcher years. Also, his rehab probably was not the same.


    • Stephen Rhoads

      IIRC, Posada had a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff. Way more serious.

      • Steve (different one)

        Hmm, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but as I search, I am finding references to both types of injuries (capsule and labrum). Here is one that calls it capsular:

        Reports that Jorge Posada rebounded well from a capsular tear may be encouraging to Santana but the outlook of management should be more tempered.

        The reason I thought it was the same, b/c I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “capsule” before Posada’s injury so it stuck with me.

        Also, what was Wang’s injury?

        • Stephen Rhoads

          That’s a good find, and a very detailed read on the nature of the injury. Sounds like you’re right – the only difference, I think, is that Posada tore his labrum as well and I don’t believe Santana did. Not sure it matters, I think I read Carroll saying that the labrum injury was more of the “effect than the cause” of the original capsular injury, if that makes sense. I’m not a doctor, and I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I don’t want to get in over my head :)

          Re: Wang, this piece suggests that he had his capsule scoped. I’d like to do a bit more research on the nature of both of their injuries (Posada and Wang) when I have more time.

          • Gonzo

            IIRC correctly, Wang had rotator cuff and capsule issues, not just capsule.

            • John Cerra

              If I recall Jorge has had two shoulder injuries. The labrum was the second injury was the one Dr. Altchek fixed in 2008. The labrum is a ring of material around where the upper arm fits into the shoulder. Arod had a tear in the labrum of his hip. Same idea in the hip.

              Santana injured the capsule in the front of the shoulder, it literally faces forward. He is in good hands… Dr. Altchek is the best.

              Wang always had a rotator cuff tear that finally seemed to need to be fixed. But it was very odd…remember the day Boston lit him up in early 2009…wasn’t he touching 95 that day? Strange to have that much velocity with a tear that needs surgery.

  • Accent Shallow

    We’ll wait for tomorrow, but I think the contract makes this a no go. Four years? No way, since we’re not even sure if he’ll return to being what he was.

    • mbonzo

      A few things would have to happen.
      1. He is successful in his rehab starts or pitches well when he comes back in June or July.
      2. The Mets eat some money. I think 35-40% is reasonable.

      • Gonzo

        He’ll make $72mm in the next three years ($5mm a year is deferred though). If his 4th year option doesn’t vest with innings, it takes a $5.5mm buyout. That is a 3/$77.5mm deal or a 4/$97mm deal starting this year for Santana.

        Wowser! Minaya salted the earth when he was with the Mets.

        • Gonzo

          Forgot to add. If the Mets eat 40%, that’s a 3/$46.2mm or a 4/$58.2mm left before the start of this year.

          If the Yanks trade for him next offseason, with the Mets eating 40%, that’s a 2/$33mm or a 3/$44.7mm contract.

          That last year can become a player option if Santana can pitch a decent combination of innings in the last 1-3 years of the deal.

          • Stephen Rhoads

            Hey pal, no fair spoiling my post tomorrow! :)

            • Gonzo

              Dang! There was a new thread when I posted that. Nobody saw nuthin, got that everyone.

  • MattG

    I read the whole article, alright? But I should’ve stopped after you basically told me that Santana probably can pitch until mid-2011, and will need 70-80 innings to gain his form.

    • mbonzo

      If Santana gained his form he’d be more reliable than Cliff Lee. He’d be cheaper. He’d be on a shorter contract. Its something to seriously explore IMO. He could be the only legitimate ace left on the trading block at this point. Yanks need to keep their eyes open when he starts rehabbing.

      • Steve (different one)

        Would be kindof funny if the Yankees were able to land Santana for little talent and a 2 1/2 year commitment considering all of the hand wringing in 2008.

        The way I see it:

        Santana doesn’t change their fortunes in 2008 – that team was too old and too slow to win it all, even with Johan

        Obviously he was unneeded in 2009

        In 2010, he wouldn’t have helped b/c he ended the season on the DL.

        Sooo, they’d be in the same place (apologies to Michael Kay and the fallacy of the predetermined outcome), but without surrending Hughes or IPK (who helped land Grandy) or Melky (who was a nice piece in 2009 and was used in a trade).

        Not saying they should pay themselves on the back, just that it would be ironic in a 10,000 spoons kindof way.

        • JAG

          What would be really ironic would be if the Yankees had resigned Melky as a FA and then used him as part of the trade for Santana.

    • Stephen Rhoads


      a) alright
      b) its no surprise that mid 2011 is the goal
      c) the 70-80 innings remark was not mine, its from a doctor, but its not Santana’s doctor. Like I’ve said elsewhere in the comments, everything on his health is speculation until we get some good intel on how he’s progressing.

      • MattG

        My point is simply this: there are no good 2011 options, and with this information, there are still no good 2011 options. If we want to open this thing up to players that can help in 2012, Santana will have some competition.

  • Mike

    Gotta think the Mets cannot suffer another back-page fiasco, and trading their “ace” to the Yanks ain’t gonna happen because they will get crucified- even if it’s ultimately in the Mets best interests

  • Ted Nelson

    Great analysis.