What if the Mets Never Traded for Johan Santana?

This post is inspired by Aaron Gleeman’s review of the Johan Santana trade over at Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, as well as Ted Berg’s earlier look back at the same trade. Basically, the idea is that the trade hasn’t worked out ideally for either side — none of the four players the Twins acquired developed into stars, while Johan Santana is now racking up medical bills and not pitching and taking up a lot of payroll for the Mets. Nothing is awesome and no one is happy.

But let’s look at the trade through a different lens: What would the baseball universe look like had the Johan Santana trade fallen through? How would the paths of the Mets and Twins differ? That is: Would the Mets really be better off had they never traded for Johan Santana?

My guess is the Mets would actually be worse off, while the Twins would be better off. Here’s how I see it playing out in hindsight:

1. In lieu of Santana, the 2008 Mets sign Livan Hernandez: The Mets fail to trade for an ace pitcher, sign Livan Hernandez, and go into 2008 with a starting rotation of:

  • Pedro Martinez
  • Oliver Perez
  • John Maine
  • Mike Pelfrey
  • Livan Hernandez

I’m stick Livo on the Mets here. He was still available when the Santana trade went down – the Twins ultimately signed him after trading Santana – and we know Omar Minaya liked Hernandez, because Minaya actually did sign him the next season. So no Santana means mo’ Hernandez, so clearly we’re all a bit less happy for it. But only a little bit less. Livan Hernandez is kind of fun to watch.

2. The Mets don’t collapse in 2008, because they’re not close enough to collapse: This parallel universe team is the exact same group as the real 2008 Mets, only Hernandez takes all of Santana’s starts. So by “exact same,” I really mean “worse.” Without Santana – who, remember, was awesome in 2008, leading the National League in ERA and innings pitched — the Mets’ rotation struggles and the team falls far behind the Phillies in the NL East. Willie Randolph is fired a bit earlier and Jerry Manuel takes over as manager, but it still makes little difference: The Mets finish with an 83-79 record and miss the postseason by a full seven games. The media blames the ghosts of the 2007 collapse for the Mets’ poor showing in 2008. Meanwhile, Omar Minaya hears all about fixing the starting rotation from Mets fans in bagel shops . . .

3. The Twins win the 2008 AL Central: The Twins elect to keep their ace pitcher, choosing to take the picks and then let him walk via free agency after the year. Santana has another monster year – he wins 18 games, finishes second in the AL in ERA and third in Cy Young voting. The Twins now win the AL Central by five games, instead of losing a Game 163 to the White Sox as they did in real life.

Now here, I think, is the best argument against the Santana trade from the Twins’ perspective: They didn’t just give up one year of Santana (and the two draft picks they would have gained when he signed elsewhere); they also inadvertently gave up the 2008 AL Central crown. One more win, which is certainly less than the difference between Livan Hernandez and Johan Santana, and Minnesota would have passed the White Sox and faced the Tampa Bay Rays in the divisional series.

Now the Twins did win just 79 games in 2007, and then lost their center fielder Torri Hunter via free agency over the winter. So they saw themselves as being farther from contention than they actually were. But Minnesota had also won 96 games just two years earlier and had a pair of young stars in first baseman Justin Mourneau and catcher Joe Mauer. It wasn’t like they were going to be awful. Hindsight is 20/20, but if the Twins had kept Johan Santana, they probably win another division crown and one more chance in the playoff crapshoot. That’s probably the worst thing about the trade from the Twins’ perspective, rather than the players that didn’t work out.

4. The Mets take a dramatically different, and possibly worse, path during the 2008-2009 winter: After a disappointing 83-79 season, the Mets have a different focus during the off-season: There’s a better possibility Jerry Manuel doesn’t return as non-interim manager; Omar Minaya’s focus is likely on the starting rotation instead of the bullpen; the Mets do need a closer though, with Billy Wagner hurt, so Minaya is still monitoring that market; and the Mets still have the pieces of the Johan Santana trade to play with. The winter goes much differently.

The Mets need starting pitching help: Without Santana, our imagined Mets now have just two starting pitchers signed for 2009 — John Maine and Mike Pelfrey. Let’s set Omar Minaya loose on the 2009 free agent pitching market. Our top choices are:

  • CC Sabathia
  • Johan Santana
  • A.J. Burnett
  • Derek Lowe
  • Ryan Dempster
  • Oliver Perez

We can knock some names off: Dempster doesn’t leave Chicago, Lowe still chooses Atlanta over New York, and no one is silly enough to sign Oliver Perez except the Mets. So now we have the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Mets fighting over CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, and A.J. Burnett.

Here’s how I see it: The Yankees still throw a ton of money at Sabathia and get their guy. The Angels and Mets fight for Santana, but Anaheim is able to throw more money at Santana than the Mets – the Mets have too many holes in their pitching staff to spend $140 million on one starter. Santana signs with the Angels. The Mets decide to grab A.J. Burnett, to go along with the re-signed Oliver Perez in the rotation, and sign Francisco Rodriguez to be the closer, same deal as in real life.

That’s a nightmare winter for the Mets . . . but tell me that’s not how it happens with Omar Minaya still in charge. And even if it’s not, there are few scenarios that play out better. If the Mets do sign Johan Santana on the free agent market, instead of A.J. Burnett, that might be worse. The Mets probably sign Santana for six years again, only now those years cover 2009-2014, instead of 2008-2013. The price tag also goes up, to $140 million dollars on the open market, because now they’re bidding against the Angels and Red Sox. (Sabathia got $160 million with an opt-out clause that winter, and Santana looked to be just as good at the time. It’s possible Santana gets a similar, monster contract on the open market. Santana’s extension with the Mets is, probably, a slight discount.)

So the imagined-Mets’ choices are either:

1. A.J. Burnett and Oliver Perez
2. Johan Santana, signed to an even bigger contract, and Oliver Perez
3. Just Ollie
4. Burning a giant pile of money

Which one do you choose? It doesn’t matter, because no matter what, it doesn’t end well.

5. The Possible Upside: No J.J. Putz trade: We’ll give Minaya a break and say, with the focus on the rotation, he doesn’t trade seven players for a damaged J.J. Putz. Combined with the four untraded players from the non-Santana deal, there are now 11 extra players in the Mets organization for Minaya to keep as depth (no) or trade for overrated, big-name pitching help (yes).

So there’s a half-way decent shot, in this parallel universe, that the Mets trade Jon Niese, Carlos Gomez, and two other prospects to the San Diego Padres for Jake Peavy, in lieu of signing a non-Ollie free agent starter.

I’m telling you, there’s no way this ended well.

6. The 2009 Mets are still bad, but slightly less so: If the Mets don’t make the Santana and J.J. Putz trades, but everyone gets hurt in 2009 anyway, that extra depth –11 players, nine of whom played in the majors last season by the way — at least makes things less embarrassing. Jason Vargas eats innings in place of John Maine and Oliver Perez, Joe Smith gives the team bullpen depth, Mike Carp hits some home runs, and the Mets use an insanely good Endy Chavez-Carlos Gomez-Angel Pagan defensive outfield at various points during the season.

7. Or none of those things happen: Or maybe not. We’ve broken quite far from the realm of reality, and there’s no point in going farther. There are thousands of paths the Mets could have taken had the Johan Santana trade fallen through – there’s no guarantee things would look any better or worse. Maybe Santana was reviewing the Wilpons’ investment portfolio, for all we know.

Johan Santana’s contract is an albatross on the Mets’ shoulders right now, but it could be worse. If the Mets fail to make that trade, it’s possible they make a worse signing the following winter: Santana (on a bigger deal), A.J. Burnett or Jake Peavy could easily be Mets today. And the Mets would be worse off without Santana. Game 161 in 2008 would never have happened. The Mets’ September 2008 games that season would not have mattered. The Mets took a shot with Santana in 2008 and fell a game short. That was a shot worth taking. The payment came last season, and this season, and next season, but it’s no sure bet the Mets would be better off had they not traded for Johan Santana four years ago.


Filed under Columns, Words

17 responses to “What if the Mets Never Traded for Johan Santana?

  1. I can’t argue with any of the conclusions you come to. That’s quite a bleak picture you paint there.

    Again, the moral of the story is the Mets are better when they have money. *sigh*

    • seriously? that’s what you get out of this? The mets are better when they have money?

      Do you understand a thing about baseball? The ENTIRE reason this article was written is that despite having money the last several years they were NOT a good team.

      The point is that money WELL SPENT is what makes teams good. Money spent poorly kills teams.

      • Patrick Flood

        Indoor voices, please.

        I think Kyle here was making a reference to something I’d written earlier in the week, with his “the moral is the Mets are better when they have money.”

        I agree money well spent is better than money poorly spent, and I’d rather have Sandy Alderson spending $90 million than Omar Minaya spending $140 million. But I’d also rather have Alderson spending $140 million than Alderson spending $90 million. The Mets would be better off if they had money.

  2. Scary how you can turn not making the JJ Putz trade into a bad thing. But most of your scenarios are pretty realistic for the time.

    silver lining, the draft picks the Mets would have lost in the 2009 draft had they signed more free agents that offseason were Matz and Shields, so no losses there at least.

    How about if the Red Sox had signed Santana after the 2008 season instead of Brad Penny. That team managed to make the postseason with Lester, Buckholz and three train wrecks. But now they would have Matsuzaka, Santana, and Lackey under contract… yikes.

    • Patrick Flood

      Right, they lost the 24th overall pick to the Angels for signing K-Rod, so they would have only lost their second round pick had they signed another Type-A free agent.

      Another fun what-if there: Who do the Mets pick if they don’t sign K-Rod? The Angels took OF Robert Grichuck with the Mets’ 24th pick . . . and then Mike Trout with the Yankees pick at 25.

  3. There’s always the chance that Santana pitches well enough to attract deadline attention in 2013. If he even gives them 2-3 WAR in the coming season, he’ll still be disastrously overpaid, but only RA Dickey (with 4.9) had as many as 2 WAR last year for the Mets. (The rest of the starters combined for 6.0.)

    If Santana can give them 5 WAR by the All-Star Break 2013, and then be dealt to a contender looking to get over the top, the end result of this deal begins to look better.

    I suppose the best way to say it is, the Twins’ end of this deal really can’t improve, but the Mets’ end can, and hopefully will.

  4. KD

    What a fun What if game!

    I think the moral of the story here is that Omar would have screwed the Mets one way or another. And while we all knew that the contract the Mets gave Johan could go poorly — because of the reasons it has (injury) — at the time we were all content with it because we felt it would give them a chance to make the playoffs in 08. And while they didn’t, they did have a chance.

  5. I think the only conclusion one can draw is that Minaya was an awful GM. After all, the non-Santana scenarios mostly have one thing in common-Omar makes an even worse deal, be it trade or signing. He may have been a good scout but he was overmatched as a GM. One only had to listen to one press conference, with “ummmm.” as every third word out of his mouth, to know he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the marquee, and it showed every time he bid against himself and offered a too-large contract to someone. As far as I’m concerned, agents and other GMs ran rings around him.

    • Patrick Flood

      “I think the only conclusion one can draw is that Minaya was an awful GM.”

      Thus shall read the New York Mets’ history books.

  6. If we are playing the “What if…” game, what if Santana never got hurt and Putz was not damaged goods? What might we be saying now? The problem teams face is how much should be spent in prospects, dollars and length of contracts on front-line pitchers. especially those outside of your own organization. They are the most risky venture in baseball.

    • But Putz WAS damaged oods, another fault of Omar’s for not doing his homework. And maybe less money to guys like Ollie & Castillo would’ve left more budget to deal with the inevitable injuries. Omar kept making the wrong decisions about what to spend on whom. Any way you shake it out you get the same answer.

  7. I’m not so sure Santana gets the monster contract as a typical free agent even after his good year.

    There were warning signs all over him with the decreasing k rate and velocity. We all knew it could happen and pundits were warning about it too..

    • Patrick Flood

      Interesting point, but here’s my counterpoint: A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Oliver Perez and CC Sabathia all got ridiculous contracts, despite the warning signs for Burnett and Perez, Lowe being old, and the Brewers abusing Sabathia because they knew they weren’t going to resign him.

      And then John Lackey, another warning sign guy, got a hilarious contract from the Red Sox a year later.

      The other thing is that the reduced K rate and velocity didn’t hurt Santana much. It’s really just been the injuries.

  8. If we dont trade for Santana, we also save a ton of money that we could have potentially spent on a different free agent, perhaps one that could have worked out better as far as health or production goes. One example that comes to mind is that mabye we would have spent the extra couple of buck and went after matt holliday instead of Jason Bay. 345-Wright, Holliday, Davis. I like the way that sounds, no matter how bad the pitching would have been, we would have still had reyes up until this year. The offense would have made up for it.Flat out, the santana signing (not the trade itself), has not worked out.

  9. This is probably very bad Internet etiquette, but I’m going to quote from a poster (Rey-O) at Amazing Avenue:

    “I disagree with the premise of the second part of this.
    If the Mets don’t trade for Sabathia, the Yanks get him. This idea that the Twins keep him instead is ridiculous. Santana was on the trade market for a reason, and the BoSox and Yanks were throwing the best packages at them. The only reason they picked Minaya’s worse offer was because they didn’t want to have to deal their Ace to the two teams they’d most likely meet in a short series. Regardless, if the Mets don’t step in, he still ends up getting dealt, most likely to the Yankees.

    “With the Yankees getting a great Santana, there’s virtually no way they get Sabathia the next year, and the Mets would have the money they would have allotted to Santana to throw at him. Frankly, the Mets may have even gotten him earlier; instead of the Brewers being able to make the trade for CC in 2008 (and subsequently beating out the Mets for the WC) the Mets might have thrown their Santana-lite package at him instead.”

    I thought that was well-reasoned, and more likely than Patrick’s scenario. Sorry.

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