Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Was Your Favorite Johan Santana Moment?

As we sit on the cusp of what seems imminent within the next 72 hours, I can finally take a moment to gather my collective thoughts when it comes parting with Santana. I have avoided making any sort of judgments on the rumored deals because future speculation is for tabloids. Months of speculation from mainstream sources and endless refreshes of MLBtraderumors.com or Gleeman's posts of endless rumors during the Winter Meetings left me numb. In a way, this announcement feels like a non-event that we had been preparing for since the end of the 2007 season.

Don't get me wrong, this is the correct business move. Demonize Pohlad if you must, but in the end he is simply running a business. The Twins live and die in the mid-market and he is operating within those parameters. There are no benevolent owners in this world, no execptions. Santana's price became large market following several Cy Young awards. So is the nature of baseball. Joe Posnanski summarized the emotions of being a fan in the mid-to-small markets eloquently in his blog recently. Those of us that monitor these transactions as a passion (read: people who have read Moneyball and idolize Billy Beane) have known for quite some time that this was bound to happen. It made all the financial sense in the world to trade Johan off when he was able to provide the Twins with prospective value. And it is only fitting that Santana takes the same course as Frank Viola did to replenish the farm system by the New York Mets. We said thank you to the Mets for 1991 and hopefully we will be thanking them for 2009 or sooner.

Still, I can't help but miss the idea of Johan. Watching Johan in his full opulence is amazing. I will miss his absolute mastery when it comes to setting batters up, leaving them swinging at the change-up in a manner so comically, it is usually reserved for whiffle ball games. I will miss referring to every fifth day as "San-terror" day - in homage to how he must have made the opposing lineup feel. I will miss the fact that we are no longer privy to hearing how futile Cleveland's shortstop Jhonny Paralta is against Johan (Paralta had struck out in 22 out of 28 at-bats against Santana leading to a .107/.167/.143 batting line). It is hard to replace him and the way he worked his opponents. Francisco Liriano is a raw version of that (better if you used FIP as a gauge), but he simply is no replacement.

Part of me wants him to fail his physical under the premise of fallen arches or because the doctor doesn't like the sound of that cough. Something to keep him here for one last season - to couple with Liriano as the deadliest left-handed combination since Hamilton and Burr - for one last, sick dominating run at the AL Central. Let all those other clubs load up offensively. Try and deal with Santana and Liriano in a series.

When the next generation of analysts reflect back upon the early 2000s, they will notice that a Rule 5 draft pick from Houston (via the Florida Marlins) not only became one of the best pitchers in the game but also helped breathe new life into a franchise that could have just as easily wound up in this nation's capital. When the Twins were flirting with contraction, Johan emerged as a superstar. A genuine superstar (not the pseudo-Marty Cordova "burn-myself-in-a-tanning-bed" who made an appearance on SNL type of star). People made the point of watching Johan Santana, whether it be on TV or live at the Dome.

  • You could say it started on July 28th, 2002. Until that date, Santana had made 8 starts in 2002 after playing part-time starter/part-time reliever/part-time roster spot in 2001 and 2000. A month prior on June 28th, Santana finished with 9 strikeouts and had dueled another up-and-coming prospect, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets for 8 innings where following a wild pitch from Santana to Alex Ochoa to move Richie Sexson to third, then giving up a Ochoa singled to center to score Sexson on his lone run (a game score of 79). Fast forward to July 23rd, where Santana could only last 3.2 innings against the Chicago White Sox while giving up 8 earned runs. It would appear that Santana might never solidify a spot in the rotation. On July 28th, however, you could have announced the arrival once and for all of Johan Santana. He finished 8 innings of shut out ball against the Toronto Blue Jays, 4 to 0. Over that time, Santana surrendered two hits, walked three, while striking out 13. The Twins completed the season as the front-runners of the AL Central with a 94-67 record. During the playoff series against Oakland and Anaheim, Santana made several appearances in relief as the Twins opted to stick with Rick Reed in spite of not make it out of the 6th inning in either starts during the playoffs (foreshadowed by not making it past the 5th inning in his last two starts of the regular season).

  • In 2003 the Twins returned him back to the bullpen to begin the season. Although he was making spot starts, Santana garnered national attention when he did not lose in 11 starts from August 3rd on. He finished 12-3 on the season but ended 8-0 in the last two months of the year. One of his best games pitched during that period was a no-decision for him in front of 30,000 fans at the Metrodome against Cleveland. On August 13th, 2003, Santana dueled a cadre of Indians pitchers 8 innings of scoreless ball where he only rendered 4 hits and struck out 8 (finishing with a game score of 81). After being replaced with Latroy Hawkins in the 9th, Juan Rincon failed him by giving up 3 straight singles in the 14th inning and gave way for JC Romero to blow the game. Attempting to carry his success into the playoff against PED-fueled Yankees, Johan pitched well in game 1 but was a no-decision as Latroy Hawkins won that game. Santana was the pitcher of record in the loss in the deciding game 4 after giving up 6 runs in the 5th inning.

  • 2004 was the Year of the Cy for Santana. On July 6th entering a game at the Dome against the non-factor 29-52 Kansas City Royals, Johan Santana, at 6-5, dominated the lowly Royals for 9 innings, giving up no runs on 3 hits with 13 strike outs (finishing with the highest game score yet in his career: 91). The Twins won 4-0 thanks to future Los Angeles Angel Torii Hunter's 11th home run of the season in the 2nd inning. From July 21st to September 24th, Santana rattled off 12 straight victories and finished 20-6 with a 2.61 era. In that season, Santana finished with 10 or more strike outs in a game 12 times. Santana was able to produce a victory in game 1 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium but was failed by his bullpen in game 4 where Nathan and Rincon were unable to hold a 5 to 1 lead. Kyle Lohse ultimately lost the game in the 11th. (Note to RHP Pitching Seeking GMs: Don't sign KYLE LOHSE for this reason).

  • 2005 was a continuation of his 2004 season. Santana began 5-2 in his first 10 starts on his way to finishing the season 16-7. Of those 7 defeats, Santana was subjected to 4 games in which he lost by one run - additional offensive and Santana might have been 20-3. The Twins finished 83-79, only good enough for 3rd in the AL Central, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Santana was second in the Cy Young voting despite pitching better than winner Bartolo Colon when comparing era+ and quality. Santana finished with 155 era+ while Colon finished at 122 era+. Want more evidence? Colon finished with 157 strike outs in 222.7 innings (0.70 k per inning), Santana finished with 238 in 231 innings (1.03 k's per inning). Instead of the peripheral numbers, the voters saw 5 more victories in Colon's favor for a team that ultimately had ten more victories.

  • A changing of the guard happened in Minnesota in 2006. Long-time opening date starter Brad Radke finally gave way to the new staff ace Johan Santana after Radke had initiated the summer the previous five years. Most had already given Santana the ace title after his Cy Young award in 2004 but this was still ceremonious in many ways. Making his predecessor proud, Santana lost his first opening day start against Toronto at the Rogers Centre, then he subsequently drop his next three starts. Through May 28th, Santana was 4-4 but had thrown several good games and had struck out more than 10 in his four prior starts. Santana was accountable for 19.7% of the wins as the Twins finished 96-66 in what was considered an improbable year though he suffered a 3-2 defeat in his only playoff start agaist the Oakland A's. His 19-6 record coupled with a 2.77 era and 245 strike outs in 233 innings (1.05 k's per inning) led to his 2nd Cy Young award.

  • Santana, like the Twins, was burdened a lot by unnecessary losses in the 2007 season. His 15-13 record does not reflect the 3 games he lost by 1 run and the 7 decisions he lost by 2 runs. A lot could be said about the 2007 team if they had offense at the right times. Santana was yet another victim of these run deficient circumstances. On Sunday, August 19th, completed what could be the best start of his career to date. I will remember it through the words of John Gordon and Dan Gladden on KSTP as I was driving home from a cabin in Emily, MN but somehow when you hear those words "SWWWWIIIIIIG...and a miss" from Gordo, it ingrains itself into yours psyche better than your eyes can. On that day, Gordon and Gladden reported that event 17 times (the most in San-terror's career) against the Rangers. Johan contributed to 18.9% of the 79 victories the Twins had accrued.

After the season end amid speculation that Santana had pitched his last in Minnesota pin stripes, we collectively recoiled. Again, those of us who are familiar with the works knew that it was true - that Santana was destined for a grander stage that the 2.4 million of us in the Twin Cities could not provide - so we held hope against all odds that the Twins ownership would come through with an offer.

Here is the hard truth: you will miss Johan too. You will miss the fact that during every Twins losing streak you at least had Santana to count on to extinguish it. You will grow tired of the nights this summer when he leads off 'Baseball Tonight', with clips of him striking out countless Phillies, Marlins, Pirates or Braves. You will anger over how Joe Buck fawns over him when he is selected to start for the National League All-Star team and references that, at the break, he is leading the NL in wins and that the Mets "only" had to give up four prospects with his smug, private-schooled, judgmental voice. You will HATE the umpteenth time Ken Rosenthal refers to Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana as the greatest living 1-2 starters since Drysdale and Koufax. Most of all, you will hate to see the reception he gets his first appearance at Shea because you are already starting to forget that feeling of having the most dominating lefty when he was in your own backyard.