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.