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Mets need to reconsider Santana's role

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Should the Mets be worried about Johan Santana? That’s the nagging question after the ace lefthander allowed another grand slam — his third of the season — in a disappointing 4-0 loss to the Yankees on Sunday.

Despite his experience and winning pedigree, not to mention the way he’s revered in the clubhouse, Santana is experiencing what some talent evaluators say is the onset of his decline phase. “He’s in his late prime,” is how one scout put it.

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That’s an ominous description for a 31-year-old pitcher who’s signed through 2013. The Mets won’t dare say there’s anything wrong with Santana, but it’s clear that Mike Pelfrey has emerged as their primary weapon. There’s no shame in that, except that Santana continues to draw opposing teams’ aces, as he did on Sunday against CC Sabathia, and is afforded little if any run support.

Even that would be a manageable hurdle, were it not for the diminishing velocity on his fastball. According to Fangraphs.com, Santana’s average four-seamer is under 90-mph for the first time in his career, and there’ve been instances this season where he’s sat at 85-86 mph.

The lefthander was slightly better than that Sunday, touching 90-mph on several occasions. But the days of routinely lighting up the radar gun at 93-94 mph, as he did in 2006, are probably over.

Hitters are less likely to worry about Santana’s fastball, which means they can wait longer on the change-up — or choose not to pursue it as it darts out of the strike zone. They’re swinging at less than 50 percent of Santana’s pitches this year, a four percent drop-off from 2009.

Now, when hitters do commit, they’re more likely to connect. Opponents’ contact ratio against Santana is up to 82 percent, a career high, and a 25 percent jump from his Twins-era prime, which began in 2004.

All this explains why Santana is so much more vulnerable: the strikeouts have vanished from his portfolio. In 2004 he averaged 10.46 Ks per nine innings. In 2002, it was as high as 11.38. Today it’s 5.69.

So where have those missing punch-outs gone? Sometimes over the wall. His margin of error is so thin, every mistake becomes costly. That’s precisely what happened against the Yankees, when one pitch — a fastball left over the inner half of the strike zone — proved decisive. Mark Teixeira’s grand slam was all the room Sabathia needed.

“Teixeira did a good job hitting the ball and instead of staying within a couple of runs he hit a grand slam,” Santana said after the game. “I was just trying to stay focused and throw my pitches, trying to keep the ball down. That was my mindset from the beginning of the game.”


Don’t hold your breath waiting for Santana to worry out loud about the grand slams. Or that opponents are batting over .300 against him in his last three starts. Santana isn’t wired for anxiety. But it’s the front office’s job to determine whether the Mets have the best-possible assembly of players for a postseason berth, and whether Santana is still the right best choice at the top of the rotation.

The good news for the Mets is that a dominant team has failed to emerge from the pack; the Phillies are thus far lacking the overwhelming firepower that took them to the World Series last year.

If the Phillies haven’t been great, the Mets haven’t been nearly as awful as observers believed they’d be in May — not by a long shot. With relative parity in the National League, one senior member of the organization said, “we’re going for it” as the trade deadline approaches.

That means all options are on the table, including (and especially) Cliff Lee. Question is: how much would the Mets be willing to pay if they if they accept that Santana is no longer a guarantee to stand up to the likes of Sabathia or Roy Halladay?

Indeed, it was one thing for the Mets to pound on the Orioles and Indians during the last road trip, but losing 2-of-3 to the Yankees was a wake-up call of sorts. Unless Santana can win the low-scoring games, the Mets will struggle to get to 88 wins.

They’ll certainly know more in the next two series, when they face the Tigers and Twins. They’ll draw Justin Verlander on Tuesday, and Santana will likely see Carl Pavano on Friday. Don’t laugh: American Idle out-pitched Halladay on Sunday, beating the Phillies, 4-1, in a complete game victory.

So would it be worth it for the Mets to trade, say, Jon Niese for Lee? Senior officials says there’s no chance they’d agree to such a swap — that’s a price they’ll never pay. But the Mets have no interest in either Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook, having faced both in the last 10 days.

“Definitely not,” is how one Met veteran answered when asked if either of the American League pitchers could help in Flushing.

For now, the Mets are keeping their options open, and, in regards to Santana, their fingers crossed. Ownership is assuming — or at least hoping — the lefthander will find a hot streak somewhere in his genetic coding.

“(Santana) kind of finds a lay of the land, finds his way around and the second half he takes off,” manager Jerry Manuel said. “That’s just who he is, his history. We’re hoping it’s the same thing.

“He’s a guy I’m never concerned with.”
 

Tagged: Twins, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana

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