For five years, Johan Santana looked like one of the best pitchers any of us had even seen. Armed with a great mid-90’s fastball, undeniably the best changeup in baseball, and impeccable control, Santana dominated hitters like no one else, going 86-39 with a 2.82 ERA in 1146.2 innings pitched from 2004 to 2008. That 2.82 ERA looks impressive itself, but Santana managed to put up that number in an extremely hitter-friendly environment- his ERA+, his ERA compared to league average adjusted to ballpark, was 157, a ridiculous 57% better than average. No other pitcher during that same stretch was higher than 40% above average, and no pitcher other than Randy Johnson from 2000 to 2004 could manage as good of an five-year stretch since the turn of the century. He struck out over a batter per inning (9.3 K/9), didn’t walk anyone (2.0 BB/9), delivered 219 or more innings each year, and won two Cy Young awards, never finishing below 5th in the voting. When he was traded to the New York Mets, it was among the craziest and most controversial deals of all time, and when the Mets signed him to a 6-year, $137.5MM deal, no one flinched. However, success, even at the pinnacle, can be quite fleeting and before we knew it, Santana’s career had entirely fallen apart.
Santana continued to pitched well in 2009 and 2010, managing a 3.05 ERA (131 ERA+), but he averaged just 183 innings per season as injuries began to take their toll, culminating with surgery to remove bone chips in his left throwing elbow in August of 2009 and then surgery on his shoulder to repair an anterior capsule tear in September of 2010, sidelining him for all of 2011. Santana did find success when he returned to the Mets for 2012, throwing the first no-hitter in franchise history and taking a 2.76 ERA into the end of June, but he was bothered by ankle and back injuries as he imploded spectacularly in his next five starts over the next month and a half, managing just a 15.63 ERA, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Further pain in his shoulder prompted Santana to see doctors once again, and he was forced to undergo a second surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his shoulder, ending his season and putting his career in jeopardy. Despite all of that, though, Santana is not done. Chris Leible, one of Santana’s agents, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that Santana certainly didn’t get the surgery “to work on his water polo career” and then tweeted this.
. @johansantana ‘s plan is to be back on the mound pitching again as soon as possible.
— Chris Leible (@ChrisLeible) March 29, 2013
Santana is determined to come back, but the Star-Ledger also noted that Santana was the first ever pitcher to come back from anterior capsule surgery when he came back from it the last time and the odds of a repeat performance in that regard may be slim. But who would possibly give him a chance? He may be a former ace but he’s a shadow of his former self and even if he returns successfully, the next injury could be just moments away. Would Santana be willing to throw his honor aside and take a minor league deal if that’s what was necessary to prolong his career? Would any team be crazy enough to guarantee him any money? If there’s anyone, that team may be the Tampa Bay Rays.
Following this season, Roberto Hernandez will be a free agent no matter how he does. Jeff Niemann‘s days with the Rays look numbered now that he has been demoted to the bullpen. And most importantly, the rumors have been swirling that David Price could be traded following the season, and if that happens, the Rays’ rotation could look extremely different next season. Their rotation will include Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb and Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could fill the last two spots, but are the Rays really going to consider going into 2014 with that rotation?
After the Rays signed Hernandez last offseason, they may consider bringing in another free agent starter following this season. And considering their love for low-risk, high upside moves and pitching depth should an injury occur, Johan Santana could be a potential fit. Santana will have to prove that he’s healthy and still capable of getting major league hitters out, but if he does, the Rays might shock baseball by signing Santana and even giving him a major league contract worth around $1.5MM, of course with a team option added on as well. Santana has a long way to go in his recovery and whether he can continue his career is very much in question. If his rehabilitation from his surgery works out, though, the Rays may be the team that comes calling.