By Cliff Corcoran
Johan Santana has apparently re-torn the anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder, a reoccurrence of the September 2010 injury which wiped out his 2011 season. The injury means he could miss the entire 2013 season.
According to ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, an MRI conducted by Mets team doctor David Altchek on Wednesday revealed a "probable tear." The diagnosis was confirmed by consultations with pitching-injury specialists Doctors James Andrews and Lewis Yocum. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said surgery is a "strong possibility" and "if this diagnosis proves to be correct . . . in all likelihood Johan will be lost to the Mets for the season." A season which happens to be the last guaranteed year on his six-year, $137.5 million contract.
If Santana has indeed re-torn that capsule, it seems very likely this injury could be a career-ending one. Santana will undoubtedly get his fair share of chances to come back given the fact he was undeniably the best pitcher in baseball in the second half of the last decade. But it has been five years since his last great season in 2008. And his inability to come back from his first shoulder surgery, which he suffered at the age of 31 (he's now 34), is telling.
Shoulder capsule surgery in general tends to be career-derailing. Some recent examples of pitchers who have had the surgery are Mark Prior, Dallas Braden, Chris Young, Chien-Ming Wang and Pedro Feliciano. With Santana included, not one of those six men has pitched a full season in the majors since their surgery. Meanwhile, Prior, Braden and Feliciano have yet to make it back to the majors at all and none are currently expected to be on a major league roster on Opening Day. A second such surgery appears to be unprecedented and it seems extremely unlikely that even a pitcher as talented as Santana could come back from that at the age of 35 or beyond.
This revelation brings to an end a contentious Spring Training for Santana, one in which the Mets and their coaches expressed disappointment at Santana's lack of off-season preparation. It angered Santana, who, the Mets acknowledge, was told to use the offseason to rest his body after spending the previous two years working to come back from his first capsule tear. In his anger, Santana threw a bullpen session without permission March 4 to prove his health, in-turn angering the team. Santana last threw a bullpen March 15, after which he was shut down with what was reportedly a lower-back injury expected to put him on the disabled list to start the season. Now, it appears, he'll never get off the DL.
We'll likely never know when Santana re-injured his shoulder. One could go all the way back to his 134-pitch no-hitter last June, which caused Mets manager Terry Collins much consternation regarding the health of his pitcher's shoulder. Or his struggles in July and August, after the Cubs' Reed Johnson stepped on his ankle and before more lower-back inflammation ended his season a month and a half early. It could well be Santana's shoulder was never fully healed to begin with, as seems to be the case for Prior, Braden, Wang and company.
If this is the last we see of Santana, it's a sad end, but it makes that no-hitter (tainted though it may be by a clearly blown fair-foul call) all the more special. And takes nothing away from the greatness of Santana's peak with the Twins. From 2004 to 2008, a period of much higher run scoring than we have now, Santana posted a 2.82 ERA (157 ERA+), 1.02 WHIP, struck out an average of 238 men per year in an average of 229 innings while posting a 4.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio, won two Cy Youngs, deserved a third, and was clearly the major league's best pitcher over a five-year span, the same length of time Sandy Koufax held that title. Those five years almost guarantee Santana will get another chance if he wants one, but it seems very likely he has thrown his last major league pitch.