Such is the ephemeral nature of the New York sports scene that less than three days after the Giants monumental win in Super Bowl XLII the Mets introduced their newest star, Johan Santana, at a Shea Stadium press conference. With the thunderous cheers from the Giants victory parade still echoing through lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes, the excitement shifted to Flushing, Queens, where the 2008 baseball season was being ushered in.
Less than two weeks to pitchers and catchers.
“Welcome to the city of baseball,” said Mets general manager Omar Minaya in greeting the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. “This is an exciting time for our organization.” In response, the left handed Santana, who will turn 29 on March 13, called his arrival in the Big Apple and the National League, “The next chapter in my career, and hopefully, it will be special.”
Following the Mets historic collapse in the waning days of the 2007 season that saw them yield a large NL East lead to the Phils, and caused them to miss the postseason, Minaya had little choice but to make a blockbuster off season move to prove to Mets fans that the team was serious about making the 2008 campaign a championship chase.
However, it took Minaya a while to get the big deal done. But in the end he was aided by the fact the Twins, who had offered Santana a contract extension that the Venezuelan rejected, were forced to trade him. What’s more Minaya had to give up a lot less than the Twins had sought, handing over four prospects and no established big leaguers. That’s a far cry from what the Twins asked the first time the teams talked. Back then the Twins asked Minaya for prized shortstop Jose Reyes, but that was a non-starter, so the teams put their negotiations on the back burner while Minnesota entertained offers from the Yanks and Red Sox.
But those talks bore no fruit when the Yanks refused to give up promising starting pitcher Ian Kennedy along with starter Philip Hughes and centerfielder Melky Cabrera, and the Sox would not include centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury in any packages. Faced with the prospect of entering the upcoming season with Santana still on their roster, and knowing they’d likely lose him and get nothing back when he hit the free agent market next October, the Twins reopened negotiations with the Mets, eventually accepting outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Umber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra.
Having made the trade the Mets then had to sign Santana in a 72-hour period, which they accomplished last week. To get his name on the dotted line, the Mets gave Santana a six-year, $137.5 million extension that kicks in after the 2008 season, making him the highest paid pitcher in baseball history.
So what exactly did the Mets get in exchange for those megabucks? Some would say baseball’s best pitcher. While that could be debated, what’s certain is Santana will replace Tom Glavine as the Mets ace, and anchor a staff that also features his boyhood idol, Pedro Martinez. Going into the 2008 season, Santana is a virtual lock to exceed Glavine’s 2007 performance, which featured his 300th career win, but included a late season meltdown culminating with a horrendous start in the team’s last-game loss to the Phils that cost the Mets the division. Glavine turned down an option to return to the Mets, opting to return to the Braves.
Examining the numbers, Santana, whose Twins career began in 2000 and encompassed five full seasons, was 93-44 with a 3.22 ERA and 1,381 strikeouts in 1,309 innings pitched. That translates to just under 10 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched. Santana also led the AL in wins in 2005, in ERA in 2004 and ’06 and in strikeouts for three straight seasons, 2004-06. Santana’s best season was 2004 when he went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, a package that won him his first Cy Young Award. He won the award for a second time in 2006. But 2007 was sub-par for Santana, at least by his standards. He was 15-13 with a 3.33 ERA and 235 strikeouts, each stat his worst over the past four years.
Interviewed on New York’s WFAN sports talk radio after his introductory press conference, Santana shrugged off last year’s drop off, preferring to look to the future. “I’m excited to be with the Mets,” he said. “There will be some adjustment to changing leagues, but I’m looking forward to helping the team.” That Santana will help the Mets is a no brainer. For one thing, the National League doesn’t feature as strong a set of lineups as Santana faced in the AL so he figures to post even better numbers than in the past. Second, Shea Stadium is a pitcher’s park, yielding fewer homers than most major league venues, so Santana isn’t likely to yield as many homers as last season, when he served up 33, most in the league.
But Santana’s impact on the Mets will be felt in a number of ways away from the playing field. In the immediacy, his joining the team will lessen pre-season discussion of last year’s collapse in favor of speculation of how he will perform. Also, he will help the Mets make the transition from the antiquated Shea Stadium to their new home at Citi Field, which opens in 2009. Finally, there’s the Mets rivalry with the cross-town Yankees. Had the Bronx Bombers landed Santana their dominance over the Mets as the Big Apple’s baseball darlings would have widened. With Santana a Met, the gap should close.
No wonder Minaya was ecstatic when assessing the Santana arrival. “Today is an historic day for the New York Mets franchise,” he said. “Congratulations to the Giants on winning the Super Bowl, but today unofficially starts baseball.”