The New York Mets are flying high right now. Winners of 11 of their last 12 and 18 of 23, the Mets accomplished something yesterday that they haven’t done since June of ’06: they swept two straight road series. Yes, the two teams they swept were the Indians and the Orioles, two of the lowest bottom feeders in the American League, but these were series where the home teams had the advantage of playing with the DH against an NL team. And since this isn’t college football, where losing a game against a very good team means more than beating a bad team in the rankings, all that matters is that the Mets are padding their record and are more games over .500 than they were at any point during last year’s forgettable season.
With the positive direction the Mets are heading in right now, it’s hard to find anything that is horribly wrong with the team. There is, however, one point of contention that has developed amongst fans and that is how to handle Johan Santana when he gets the call on the mound. See why after the jump.
It’s no secret that Santana has had trouble piling up numbers in the win column since he came to New York. In 2008, Johan put up numbers not seen by a Mets pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2005 with an ERA under 3.00 and more than 200 Ks. Johan would finish third in the Cy Young voting which many believe can be attributed to the fact that his team helped him to only 16 wins despite the fact he turned in quality starts in 28 of his 34 outings. The Mets pitching staff rewarded Santana in six of his quality starts by blowing them after he left the game whereas the offense was at fault as well scoring two runs or less in four of his quality starts. A little more help from his teammates and Santana could have easily been a 20 game winner.
The 2009 season was dreadful for the entire Mets organization and even Santana had his worst year as a full-time starter, partially due to injury. Still Johan managed to pile up 13 wins and a 3.13 ERA before missing the last month and a half of the season. This time it was the offense that hung him out to dry scoring two runs or less in seven of his quality starts while the bullpen was much better to him only blowing one save.
Unfortunately for Santana’s win column, 2010 has started out much in the same way 2009 went for the Mets ace. He has pitched to the tune of a 3.13 ERA while turning in 9 quality starts in 14 chances, yet his record stands at a slightly mediocre 5-3, through very little fault of his own. In the four quality starts he did not win, Santana left after pitching seven innings with a lead or while the game was tied. The Mets went on to lose all four of those games. He also has been given two runs or less of support from the offense in an atrocious 7 of his 14 starts – HALF of the games he’s pitched in! With as much as he’s given his team the last 2+ season’s and how little return he’s gotten in the win column, it’s hard not to feel bad for Johan.
With all the statistics I’ve just thrown out, you would think that I would be leading the charge to let him go eight innings or more every night. Unlike many Mets fans, however, I do not think that is the answer. While I do still consider Santana the ace of the Mets staff, even with Mike Pelfrey’s brilliant start to the season, it is evident that he’s not the same pitcher who won two Cy Young awards and finished in the top five every year from 2003-2008. After 10 seasons, he has lost some velocity on his fastball which makes his changeup less devastating than it once was and his strikeout to walk ratio is under 2.00 for the first time since 2001.
To allow Santana to continually to throw over 100 pitches, which he has done in all but three of his starts this season would be a foolish thing for Jerry Manuel and the rest of the coaching staff to do. Considering that Santana’s velocity has clearly diminished this season and that his strikeouts are down and walks are up, having him go out there and throw until his arm falls off is not in the best interest of the team, both for this season and down the road.
For starters, if the Mets are serious about a playoff run this year, and at this point in the season it appears they should be, they are going to need him down the stretch. Who knows if the rest of the pitching staff will be able to continue to pitch as well as they have in August and September? Pelfrey, Jonathon Niese, Hisanori Takahashi, and R. A. Dickey have all far surpassed expectations at this point, but to assume they will be pitching this way late in the season is a bit too optimistic. Johan will be their anchor down the stretch, but not if he doesn’t have anything left in the tank from throwing too many pitches before the midpoint of the season. Not to mention, Santana is still under contract until 2014, has a full no trade clause, and is due more $70 million in guaranteed money (over $100 million if the club picks up his option in 2014) over the next four seasons. For a team that was still supposed to be rebuilding this year, that’ s a lot of dollars to mortgage on just the 2010 season.
In my mind the best thing to do is for Mets GM Omar Minaya to go out and get Santana some help on the pitching staff. Right now the popular names being thrown out are Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee. The asking price on both pitchers would start in the neighborhood of Niese and 20-year old Jenrry Mejia and probably go up from there. Considering Mejia will be converted into a starter in the next year or two, that is a pretty steep price to pay for two pitchers on the other side of 30 unless the Mets are going for broke and want to win the World Series this year.
The more likely scenario is that Minaya goes looking for another bullpen arm or two. With both Fernando Nieve and Raul Valdes, the two long relievers, sporting ERAs over 5.00, that would probably be a good place to start. Sure everyone is looking for pitching help when the trade deadline rolls around, but there are always plenty of teams that are no longer relevant who can supply it. Omar Minaya has also proven that he will go out and trade for bullpen arms which he did in 2006 by acquiring Roberto Hernandez and Guillermo Mota and again in 2008 by passing on Jon Rauch and winding up with Luis Ayala. Interestingly enough, both Ayala and Mota were acquired after the trade deadline passed.
For now, things couldn’t be better in Flushing, New York. But if the Mets want to be playing baseball past the third day of October, they’re still going to need to make some improvements to the pitching staff because Santana simply can’t do it himself anymore. He is still a very good pitcher, but he needs some assistance if the Mets are to continue their winning ways. And, of course, as Mets fans have seen over the last three years, the way the team is playing in June has no bearing on how they finish the season in September and early October.