Look: Johan Santana is an awesome pitcher. I love watching Johan Santana pitch. I have thoroughly enjoyed all 600 innings — even the bad ones — he has thrown in a Mets uniform.
But every time someone pens a lamentation for the Omar Minaya Era, it is qualified with an aside about Minaya’s obtaining Santana for “pennies on the dollar,” or something to that effect. (Jonah Keri’s otherwise strong writeup of the Mets’ ownership situation at Fangraphs is only the most recent example.) And I can’t see how that’s really the case.
The four young players the Mets traded for Johan Santana have not amounted to much, and may never.
But the Mets didn’t exactly trade four young players for Santana; the Mets traded four young players for the exclusive right to sign Santana to a market-rate contract. Santana was the best pitcher in the game when he was acquired, so that contract cost the Mets a lot of money.
To date, they’ve paid him $60 million. Fangraphs estimates he has been worth a little over $47 million in that time, but whatever. You pay a premium for top talent. Let’s say he has been worth it for these first three years.
On Opening Day of 2011, Santana will be 32 years old and on the disabled list recovering from shoulder surgery. And the Mets will owe him $77.5 million over the next three seasons. $77.5 million, with no guarantee he’ll ever be anything like the pitcher that dominated the National League in 2008. Will the exclusive right to give him that contract back in 2008 still seem so valuable by 2012? 2013?
And you can say: Oh but how could anyone have predicted an arm injury? Pretty easily, actually: He’s a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt, like, constantly. That’s why massive deals for free-agent pitchers tend to be bad ideas.
So while Santana has given the Mets more than the combined value of the four players they traded to the Twins, he is at this point unlikely to provide them anything like a full return on the resources they’ve invested in him. The deal seemed necessary at the time, with the Mets desperate for starting pitching and coming off the 2007 collapse, so this is not to say Minaya shouldn’t have executed it in the first place. But it’s probably time to stop talking about it like it was a total steal, since Santana’s contract seems likely to prove an albatross moving forward.