A little more than four years ago, the names Johan Santana and Phil Hughes first surfaced in tandem as part of a tantalizing trade rumor. Santana, coming off his second Cy Young award in the past four seasons and almost universally regarded as the game's best pitcher, was being dangled in trade talks by Minnesota and naturally, the Yankees were involved in the bidding. Among the prospects the Twins most coveted was Hughes, then a 21-year-old flamethrower who had been ranked the No. 4 prospect in the game by Baseball America before the 2007 season.
Santana did wind up getting dealt to New York in Feb. 2008, but it was to the Mets, not the Yankees. He pitched extremely well that year, leading the majors in ERA and the NL in starts and innings pitched, and while he was still good in 2009 and '10, injuries limited him to fewer than 30 starts both times. Hughes, meanwhile, made just eight big league appearances in 2008, was a vital part of the Yankees' bullpen in their world championship season of 2009 and made the All-Star team as a starter in 2010.
Last season, both men battled serious injuries. Santana missed the entire campaign while recovering from shoulder surgery and Hughes sat out almost the entire first half of the season because of arm fatigue.
Four years ago it seemed likely that by now Santana and Hughes would be long-standing aces of their respective Big Apple clubs. Instead, the question entering camp this spring was what, if anything, the Mets and Yankees can expect from their former All-Stars. On Tuesday, the first semblance of an answer began to take shape when Santana and Hughes made their spring training debuts. Together they pitched fewer than four innings and while there was room for pessimism regarding either outing, it was a good day for both the players and their teams.
Santana threw two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and one walk, against the Cardinals in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Over in Bradenton against the Pirates, Hughes lasted just an inning and a third of what was supposed to be a two-inning outing and retired only half of the eight batters he faced. On the bright side, the fastball that struggled to crack 90 mph with well into April last year -- the primary symptom of an undiagnosed shoulder injury that landed him on the DL for almost three months -- sat at 93 mph, a huge change from a year ago.
For Santana, just taking the mound and feeling good afterwards was similar cause for optimism considering that he hadn't been on a major league mound since Sept. 2, 2010 and underwent shoulder capsule surgery one month later.
Watching Santana work the first two innings on Tuesday, the rust on his valuable left arm was apparent. He was wild, possibly overthrowing, in the first inning. The two sliders he threw missed badly, his fastball was sitting at 87-88 miles per hour, and though he held St. Louis scoreless, he faced seven batters without striking any of them out. Still, his famous changeup looked sharp, and one, which floated in to Yadier Molina at 77 miles per hour, was downright nasty. Drawing conclusions from the first exhibition outing of any pitcher, never mind one who hasn't pitched in the majors in 19 months, is foolish at best. Still, one can't help but speculate about what Santana might have left.
Santana's velocity had been slowly eroding in the years leading up to his injury, with the speed of his average fastball bottoming out at 89.5 miles per hour in 2010, and he didn't throw much harder than that against the Cardinals. Of course, he could well add velocity as he works toward Opening Day, and the Mets announcers calling the game claimed that the radar gun at Digital Domain Park is slow to begin with. The Mets announcers also said that Santana hit 90 miles per hour with one pitch on Tuesday. I didn't see that (it that must have happened during the broadcast's brief blackout), but I did catch the fastball he threw at 86 mph.
Santana was never a power pitcher -- even at his best his fastball was never much better than 92-93 mph on average -- and he can remain a solid major league starter with a fastball that sits at or just below 90 miles per hour. The key to his effectiveness was always that changeup. At his peak, he had a separation between his fastball and changeup in excess of 10 miles per hour. With his change sitting around 80 and dipping below on occasion, he should be able to keep something close to a double-digit separation even at his reduced velocity (even in 2010, he had 10 miles per hour of difference per the Pitch f/x data).
Still, it seems clear that, even if Santana can stay healthy, he'll never again be the Cy Young candidate he was at his peak. From 2004 to 2007, Santana's first four full seasons as a starter, he struck out 9.7 men per nine innings against just two walks with a fastball that was, on average, 12 miles per hour faster than his changeup (per the data at FanGraphs.com). In his three active seasons with the Mets since, he struck out 7.4 men per nine innings against 2.5 walks while shedding three miles per hour of velocity off his fastball over that span. If Santana, who will turn 33 next Tuesday, can simply stay healthy, replicate his pre-surgery peripherals with New York, and give the Mets two years of solid work as a just-better-than-league-average starter for the $55 million remaining on his contract (which includes his $5.5 million buyout for 2014), both parties should be relieved and satisfied.
As for Hughes, he's still trying to prove his value as a major league starter. Yes, he won 18 games at the age of 24 in 2010, but the All-Star selection was the result of a hot start (he went 7-6 with a 4.90 ERA after the break), and his win total was inflated by 6.75 runs per game of support from the Yankee offense. His other four major league seasons have all featured either a lengthy disabled-list stay (the 82 games he missed last year were less than he missed in 2007 or 2008) or a demotion to the minors/bullpen (though he did excel in a set-up role in '09, posting a 1.40 ERA in 44 relief appearances). For a former first-round pick, Hughes, who will turn 26 in June, is in serious danger of turning into a bust despite those baubles from two seasons ago.
Ironically, the man Hughes is battling for the final spot in the Yankee rotation could represent what the future holds for Santana in terms of effectiveness. Though Freddy Garcia was never as dominant as Santana at his peak, he was considered one of the best young arms in the game at one point, and threw in the 93-95 mph range at his peak. That velocity eroded over several seasons in his late 20s, leading up to shoulder surgery (a torn labrum in this case) and significant time off (just 23 starts over three seasons), prior to his comeback at age 33 with an 87 mph fastball and a nasty changeup that sits around 80 mph.
Like my projection for Santana above, Garcia has lost roughly two strikeouts per nine innings relative to his peak but has re-established himself as a league-average starter, posting a 105 ERA+ in 53 starts and one relief appearance over the last two seasons for the Yankees and White Sox. Round that up a bit to compensate for Santana having been a superior pitcher to start with, and you have a reasonable expectation for his coming season.
Hughes, meanwhile, has less than a month to convince the Yankees that his remaining potential as a starter not only exceeds Garcia's, but that his value in that role would exceed what he could offer in the bullpen. With Hughes already into arbitration (he's making $3.2 million this year) and due to become a free agent after the 2013 season, the Yankees are no longer compelled to consider his long term development. It helps Hughes that the back end of the Yankees 'pen is loaded with right-handers in Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, but the Yankees bullpen lacks depth behind that impressive top three. Garcia doesn't seem like much of an option for a relief role, given that he was re-signed for $4 million in early December, more than a month before the simultaneous additions of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to the rotation, and has made just two relief appearances in his 13-year career.
For both Santana and Hughes, the early returns on Super Tuesday were nice, but their long-term prospects will be worth evaluating all month long.