About as Bad as It Gets for Santana in His Return
The much-anticipated return of Johan Santana began with the expectation that three weeks on the disabled list with a sprained ankle had helped rest his fatigued left arm.
The result, however, was a dizzying string of hard hits by the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night and a stunned Santana staring at the ground as he walked off the mound after recording only four outs.
“It was just one of those nights where I didn’t execute pitches,” Santana said.
Before the game, Manager Terry Collins voiced optimism that Santana’s stint on the disabled list had freshened him for the rest of the season and cured the ailments, mainly arm fatigue, that had contributed to a 6.54 earned run average since his no-hitter June 1.
Afterward, Collins maintained that Santana was rusty.
“His command was off,” Collins said. “At least he feels good, he feels like he’s O.K., and that’s the bright side, if there is one.”Most of Santana’s 43 pitches were pummeled by an aggressive Braves lineup, which pounced on his hanging changeups. Freddie Freeman drove in two runs with a double in the first inning. In the second, six of the first seven hitters reached base against Santana, who was relieved after a run-scoring single by Chipper Jones made the score 6-0.
The next batter, Freeman, hit a three-run homer to center field off Jeremy Hefner, and two of those runs were charged to Santana.
Santana’s E.R.A., which was 2.38 after his no-hitter, has risen to 4.58 nine outings later.
“I’m just going through a tough stretch,” Santana said. “I’m struggling. I’ve got to bounce back. I haven’t pitched for the last three weeks. It takes a little bit of time.”Looking ahead to the final two months of the season, the Mets could be hoping for two things: that Santana rebounds from Saturday’s debacle to give the team a better chance for a strong finish, and that the remaining starts serve as an audition for other teams if the Mets look to deal him in the off-season.
Trading Santana, a 33-year-old left-hander, is a long shot; he is owed $25.5 million in the final year of his contract next season (and a $5.5 million buyout) and has a full no-trade clause. But the Mets have starting pitching depth in their farm system and holes elsewhere, and they need immediate financial flexibility.
If they could manage to split the difference with another team, would the Mets consider trading Santana to free up money to sign a free-agent outfielder like Michael Bourn or Melky Cabrera?
“If they can move him, I think that they absolutely would consider it, to get out from underneath the money,” Steve Phillips, a former Mets general manager who hosts a show on Sirius XM Radio, said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s the easy part of it. The difficult part is finding who the partner would be and what’s the right amount of salary somebody would pay.”
Phillips said that teams might be willing to pay $10 million to have Santana in 2013, with the Mets footing the rest of the bill. Finding suitors at even that high a price might be difficult, as injury concerns have knocked down Santana’s trade value.
At that point for the Mets, “you might just have him pitch for you and get $15 million worth of performance out of him,” Phillips said.
It is still premature to assess Santana’s 2012 season. With Santana coming off shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the 2011 season, his dominance early this season was encouraging. He was 6-5 with a 3.24 E.R.A. at the All-Star break.
But he has significantly faded, and shoulder fatigue, velocity dips and eight-run outings are never a good thing.
“When he was winning Cy Youngs, it was because he had plus stuff with great command,” Collins said. “He doesn’t throw 95 anymore, but command is still going to be what got him through it. You look at the games he’s pitched well: lots of swings and misses, lots of called strikes. Right now, they’re not swinging and missing.”
One question is how much the Mets need him down the road. The team has already brought the rookie starter Matt Harvey to the majors, and the heralded prospect Zack Wheeler may not be far behind. Collins said that Jenrry Mejia was being reconverted into a starter for Class AAA Buffalo as well.
By 2014, when outfielder Jason Bay and Santana come off the books, the Mets will have their desired financial flexibility. The difficulty is getting there without repeating what has happened on the field this season.
The Mets designated the left-hander Garrett Olson for assignment Saturday to make room for Johan Santana on the roster.
Johan Santana recorded only four outs before being taken out.