By Jay Jaffe
What do you do with a pitcher who made just 21 starts totaling 117 innings last year after missing the entire previous season and failed to reach 30 starts in the two years before that? Particularly if he's your highest-paid player by a country mile and was torched for a 15.63 ERA over his final five starts in July and August before being shut down for the year? Chances are you take it slowly come springtime.
That's the approach the Mets are taking with Johan Santana, at least once he reported to camp less than fully prepared to begin his normal throwing program after taking most of the winter off. The 33-year-old lefty somehow thought that even with his season-ending DL stint and his light winter, New York would clear him to pitch for his native Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. When the team refused to do so and then asked him to slow his roll to avoid shoulder fatigue, he rebelled by throwing what the New York Daily News termed " an impromptu and angry bullpen session." Now he's barely communicating with team officials, and far enough behind schedule that the chances of him making his planned Opening Day start are fading.
Credit the Mets for taking the longer view here. Santana will be paid $25.5 million this year, more than twice the money of their next-highest paid player, David Wright. The team has no plans to exercise next year's $25 million option, and so will owe him a $5.5 million buyout to complete a six-year, $137.5 million deal that has gone something less than swimmingly given his injuries. While his Opening Day availability would be nice, the going-nowhere club has to hope that Santana is healthy and pitching well enough in July that the team can pack him off to a contender before the trade deadline, and thus receive some kind of useful return in exchange for eating most of his remaining salary. It's their job to protect Santana — or any injured player — from his competitive desire to get back on the field and prove his worth.
Santana should want this, too, particularly because staying healthy is the only way he's going to get another significant major league deal. When he's been able to pitch for New York, he's done so at a generally high level, with a 3.18 ERA and 127 ERA+ during his time in blue and orange. But since throwing a career-high 234 1/3 innings in 2008, his first year with the club, he has failed to reach 30 starts or 200 innings in any season (he topped out at 29 and 199 in 2010), and after a promising return that included the first no-hitter in franchise history last June 1, his season quickly unraveled; he made 10 starts totaling 49 innings after the 134-pitch no-hitter, and was hit so hard that he finished with a 4.85 ERA, his worst mark since his 2000 rookie year.
Even so, this situation raises some eyebrows. If there's a team that has shown an inability to properly manage injured players in recent years, it's the Mets. From the concussions of Ryan Church and Jason Bay to the back and leg woes of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, to their handling of J.J. Putz, Billy Wagner and even Santana himself, they have often downplayed the severity of significant injuries, then wound up losing those players for longer than they might have had they been treated properly. Most of those problems took place on the watch of former general manager Omar Minaya, but their handling of Ike Davis' ankle last year showed that current GM Sandy Alderson shouldn't get off scot-free. In that light, it's tougher to fault Santana for going against medical advice from a team whose physicians apparently got their degrees at Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, except that this time, it's the Mets throwing up the stop sign and advocating a more conservative approach instead of egging Santana to press forward. Beyond their recent legacy of mangling good ballplayers, what stands out more than anything is the Mets' continued knack for finding negative publicity. Perhaps that's a product of being perennial underachievers in a media market driven by a tabloid sensibility, where misfortune will drive coverage if good fortune does not. But even moreso, it's a function of the team's ongoing inability to resolve sensitive issues behind closed doors, and a tin ear for what their side of the story will sound like once they don't. Any situation that pits a star player against his club is ultimately bad for business, even if the team is in the right, and given the club's ongoing financial woes and embarrassing plight — this is a team that is stooping to allow Amway to open a storefront at Citi Field, and is having a hard time scaring up a major league outfield — the Mets hardly need more of that.