Johan Santana injury: If we've seen the last of him ...

Mike Stobe

So it seems we're not going to see Johan Santana pitch at all this season, and quite possibly never again, because he's suffered a serious shoulder injury for the second time in three years. From the Times:

If he does not pitch again for the Mets, Santana will be remembered for two games. The most recent came last June, when he pitched the first no-hitter in the team’s history. But it was a bittersweet accomplishment because he was forced to throw 134 pitches to get through nine innings, substantially more than the Mets wanted him to throw at that point in the wake of his first shoulder surgery.

After that game, Manager Terry Collins expressed misgivings about what harm might have been done, and his instincts might have been correct. In the 10 games he started after the no-hitter, Santana had an earned run average of 8.28, and he was eventually shut down for the season.

Santana’s other standout effort came in the next-to-last game of the 2008 season, his first in New York, when the Mets were in the process of collapsing for the second September in a row. Against the Marlins, with his team reeling, Santana pitched a three-hit, 2-0 shutout. The victory temporarily drew the Mets even in the wild-card standings, although they proceeded to lose the next day, finishing out of the postseason.

About the no-hitter ... At the time, it seemed to almost everyone that anything was worth the Mets finally having a no-hitter. Which does seem a bit silly now, doesn't it? They've got their no-hitter, but they still finished the season with 88 losses and it's not at all clear that a single extra ticket was sold because of that finally no-hitter. I think it's pretty clear that you wouldn't, as an organization, trade a season-plus of Johan Santana for one lousy no-hitter, however long you've been waiting. I think you wouldn't trade a 10-percent chance of losing Santana for one no-hitter.

Until a reputable doctor weighs in, though, I'm not going to blame Santana's shoulder injury on the no-hitter. Yes, letting him throw 134 pitches probably was risky; if Collins had pulled Santana after eight innings, though, he would have gone to his grave hearing about it. And considering his history, I suspect there's a pretty good chance that Santana would have gotten hurt anyway. What's most damning, I suppose, is just how poorly he pitched in the immediate aftermath; his ERA was 2.75 before the no-hitter, and 8.28 after. You might not think that throwing 25 or 30 pitches more than your usual limit is all that risky, but a lot of people think it is; if they didn't, you'd see a lot of guys throwing 130-some pitches.

You don't. Here are the three guys who did it last year:

134 Johan Santana
133 Edinson Volquez
132 Justin Verlander
131 Justin Verlander

Verlander's a freak. It's hard to figure Volquez, considering his injury history. But after throwing 133 pitches, he just kept plowing along, walking half the ballpark and often getting away with it.

The Mets are going to wind up paying Santana $137.5 million for winning 46 games in six years. Of course, this is reminiscent of Pedro Martinez, whom the Mets paid $53 million to win 32 games in four years, back when $53 million actually seemed like a lot of money. Basically, they got about half of what they hoped for, from both.

Funny thing was, both Santana and Martinez were coming off what were great seasons for just about anybody else, but merely good by their standards. Just like the Giants and Barry Zito, the Mets paid Martinez and (to a greater degree) Santana not for what they were, but what they had been. And the Mets in particular don't seem to have factored in the injury risk at all.

Which isn't to suggest they made a huge mistake. Everybody knows that pitchers are risky investments, but it's really hard to win without them. When you look around the league, you find that nearly every team with big money to spend has spent big money on starting pitchers. The Yankees have CC Sabathia, the Red Sox have John Lackey, the Dodgers have Zack Greinke, and the Tigers are expected to invest a huge amount of money in Justin Verlander's future. You pays your money and you takes your chances. Sometimes things go wrong, though rarely as wrong as they've gone for the Mets.

The only good news is that Santana's contract will disappear after this season; first they have to pay him $25.5 million, though, along with another $5.5 million to buy out a 2014 option. That's a lot of castor oil, but they'll feel better once they've swallowed all of it.

If this is how Santana's career ends, it's hardly a tragedy. For five years he was the best pitcher on earth, and if he's reasonably smart he'll never have to worry about paying for his next meal. But it's always somewhat disheartening to see a player with Hall of Fame talent fall short of Valhalla.

For much more about Santana and the Mets, please visit SB Nation's Amazin' Avenue.

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