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February 7, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Lose-Lose Situation: Revisiting the Johan Santana Trade

by Aaron Gleeman

‚ÄčBelieve it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Aaron Gleeman writes for HardballTalk at NBCSports.com, serves as senior editor at Rotoworld, and blogs about the Twins and Mila Kunis at AaronGleeman.com. He once saw Jay Jaffe's mustache in person and it changed his life.

Four years and one week ago, the Twins and Mets completed a blockbuster trade that sent Johan Santana to New York for prospects Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber. Santana, who'd won two Cy Young awards during the previous four seasons and deserved a third trophy that was misguidedly given to Bartolo Colon, signed a six-year, $137.5 million contract extension as part of the deal.

Santana was baseball’s best pitcher entering his age-29 season, and the Twins were consistent contenders with four division titles in the previous six seasons. However, for months it had been clear that they were unwilling or unable to keep their ace, who had one year and $13.25 million remaining on his contract, in Minnesota long term. Even letting him play out the season before recouping draft picks from his free agent departure never seemed to be an option.

Instead, the Twins spent all offseason shopping their ace, with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets emerging from the drawn-out negotiations as the three legitimate suitors. That those three teams wanted the best pitcher in baseball was no surprise, but each of them also had the well-stocked farm systems to put together strong offers and, perhaps most importantly, the financial means to give Santana the massive long-term deal he required.

Twins fans who watched Santana’s remarkable development from Rule 5 pick to Cy Young winner certainly weren’t thrilled about that reality, particularly since new general manager Bill Smith would be making the franchise-altering decision just months after replacing Terry Ryan. However, the ability to drool over all the top-ranked prospects being mentioned as possible trade targets made things a little easier to take.

It was like being let loose for a shopping spree in the prospect store, or so Twins fans hoped. In the Red Sox aisle were Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, and Jed Lowrie. In the Yankees department were Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Ian Kennedy, and Austin Jackson. And in the Mets section were Fernando Martinez, Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Jon Niese, and Kevin Mulvey.

At various points, each of the three teams was said to be the “favorite” to land Santana, and speculation swirled for months around some of the best young players in baseball. For instance, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported on December 23 that the Red Sox had offered Lester, Masterson, Lowrie, and Coco Crisp, while Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the Twins were holding out for Ellsbury.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on January 10 that the Twins had asked the Mets for Martinez and Gomez, along with multiple pitching prospects, but New York was hesitant to include both outfielders. Mike Puma and Mark Hale of the New York Post reported on January 15 that the Twins asked the Yankees for Hughes, Cabrera, Kennedy, and Jeff Marquez. And those are just a fraction of what were constant rumors.

Yet as spring training neared, there were reports that the Red Sox and Yankees weren’t quite as interested in breaking the bank for Santana as initially expected, in terms of both money and prospects. Then, as speculation shifted to the Mets as front-runners for Santana, they were said to be balking at including Martinez, who at the time was a 19-year-old center fielder and their consensus top prospect.

Ultimately, the Twins left that supposed shopping spree with a half-filled cart and a lot of confused fans. Not only couldn’t they pry Ellsbury, Masterson, and Lester from the Red Sox or Hughes and Cabrera from the Yankees, they couldn’t even get the Mets to include Martinez. All those juicy rumors and all those exciting scenarios played out over months resulted in trading baseball’s top pitcher for Gomez, Guerra, Mulvey, and Humber.

Perhaps the offseason-long buildup had raised expectations to the point that any kind of realistic return for Santana would have been disappointing, because while they paled in comparison to the packages Minnesotans had been dreaming on, those four prospects were still plenty valuable. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ own Kevin Goldstein spoke to a Mets official who described the Twins as having “ripped the heart” out of their farm system with the deal.

Goldstein ranked Gomez and Guerra as his No. 65 and No. 79 prospects, respectively. Baseball America was even higher on them, ranking Guerra at No. 35 and Gomez at No. 52. Humber had taken a step backward after ranking No. 73 on Baseball America’s list the previous year, but the former third overall pick still had mid-rotation starter upside at age 25, and Mulvey, a 23-year-old former second-round pick, had similar potential.

Minnesota had failed to get an elite prospect for Santana, but two top-100 prospects and two other quality minor leaguers certainly wasn’t a disastrous return. Of course, most Twins fans were still very disappointed by a package built around Guerra and Gomez instead of Ellsbury and Lester or Hughes and Cabrera, and most Mets fans were thrilled to land an in-his-prime ace without surrendering Martinez.

Four years later, it turns out no one should have been happy.

Initially, though, it looked like a blowout victory for the Mets. Santana was his usual brilliant self in 2008, throwing a league-leading 234.1 innings with a league-best 2.53 ERA. Meanwhile, the Twins rushed Gomez to the majors as their Opening Day center fielder, replacing Torii Hunter, and he hit just .258/.296/.360 with a 142/25 K/BB ratio in 153 games while looking anything but MLB-ready at age 22.

Guerra got knocked around at High-A as a 19-year-old, posting a 5.47 ERA with as many walks (71) as strikeouts (71) in 130 innings, and was nowhere to be found on top-100 prospect lists the next season. Humber and Mulvey spent the year as Triple-A teammates, and neither pitched particularly well, although Humber at least saw some September action as a mop-up man in Minnesota.

Santana continued to pitch very well in 2009, making the All-Star team and posting a 3.13 ERA, but he was limited to just 25 starts and spent the final six weeks of the season on the disabled list following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Meanwhile, the Twins tired of Gomez’s hacktastic ways and total lack of progress, benching him for Denard Span and then trading him to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy that winter.

Guerra again struggled in the minors, posting a 4.89 ERA with just 106 strikeouts in 149 innings between High-A and Double-A as a 20-year-old who had no business that far up the organizational ladder. Mulvey repeated Triple-A with similarly underwhelming results and was traded to Arizona for reliever Jon Rauch in late August. Humber also repeated Triple-A and was so unimpressive that the Twins let him leave as a free agent.

Santana returned from 2009 elbow surgery with a 2.98 ERA in 2010, but his strikeout rate fell to a career-low 6.5 per nine innings, his average fastball clocked in at 89 miles per hour, and in September he had rotator cuff surgery. He hasn’t pitched since, missing all of last year, and may not be ready to begin 2012. He made $22.5 million without throwing a pitch in 2011, and the Mets still owe Santana, now 33, another $55 million for 2012 and 2013.

Guerra is the lone piece of the original Santana package still in Minnesota’s organization, but instead of developing into a top-of-the-rotation starter, he’s 23 years old with a 4.95 career ERA in the minors and is now hoping to reach the big leagues for the first time as a reliever. Gomez hasn’t put his physical tools to good use in Milwaukee either, and Mulvey has spent four straight seasons at Triple-A with a 4.45 ERA to show for it.

Against all odds, Humber now looks like the most valuable player from Minnesota’s haul, although he hasn’t done the Twins any good. He was picked up and let go by the Royals and A’s but finally stuck in the majors with the White Sox last season and threw 163 innings with a 3.75 ERA at age 28. Rauch left the Twins as a free agent after one-and-a-half solid years, and Hardy had an excellent 2011 only after being dumped on the Orioles.

There's a tendency to declare an immediate “winner” in every trade, and even when taking a long-term view of a blockbuster deal involving a superstar in his prime being swapped for a multi-prospect package, it's usually fairly easy to determine who benefited most. When it comes to this trade, however, the question is more like who suffered least. And even that’s tough to say, because everyone involved went bust.

Four years into their six-year, $137.5 million investment in Santana, the Mets have gotten just 88 starts of ace-caliber pitching and an uncertain future. And for their in-his-prime ace, the Twins ended up with 1.5 seasons of a replacement-level Gomez and a year of Hardy that they later squandered, 1.5 seasons of Rauch by way of Mulvey, nothing from Humber, and whatever hope still remains that Guerra can turn into a useful reliever.

Remarkably, it wouldn’t have turned out any better if the Mets had given in to the Twins’ request for Martinez, whose arthritic knees and lack of development while being rushed through the minors resulted in his being placed on waivers last month. Houston used its No. 1 waiver priority to snag him directly in front of Minnesota, but Martinez is now a gimpy 23-year-old corner outfielder who slugged .417 at Triple-A last season.

No matter which prospects Minnesota asked for and which prospects New York agreed to part with for Santana, any trade with the Mets was essentially destined to be a failure for the Twins. Many of their reported Red Sox and Yankees targets went on to become impact players, but even if the Twins could have talked them into upping the ante, there were plenty of landmines among those future stars.

In retrospect, the Twins would have benefited most by trading with the Red Sox. Ellsbury and Lester have excelled in Boston, Buchholz has at times been on the verge of the same, Masterson became a borderline ace after being traded to the Indians for Victor Martinez in mid-2009, and even Lowrie has been useful despite a lengthy injury history. Any package of Red Sox would have dwarfed the Mets’ return.

Yankees prospects linked to Santana have been more of a mixed bag. Chamberlain and Hughes have both seen their careers derailed by injuries, and Cabrera, despite a very good 2011 season, has been little more than a decent regular. Kennedy turned into an impact starter, but only after struggling through injuries and a trade to the Diamondbacks, and Jackson has so far been just a rich man’s Gomez after being traded to the Tigers.

Months of headline-grabbing rumors about baseball’s best pitcher being shopped for an assortment of baseball’s best prospects, leading to a blockbuster trade and a $137.5 million contract extension. And four years later, the general managers who pulled off the swap, Smith and Omar Minaya, have both been fired, and Mets fans and Twins fans could argue all day about which team got the worse end. At least it made for an interesting winter.

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

amazin_mess

IMO, the trade remains a massive win for the Mets. Sure, Johan is damaged now and probably will never be the same. But they got two excellent seasons from him with a team - in 08 - that contended all year. And at that time, the Mets needed an ace badly.

Of course, the Mets are stuck with an albatross for two more years (Santana will never hit the innings threshold to activate the '14 option). But that's the price you pay.

Feb 07, 2012 03:28 AM
rating: 7
 
Sharky

Agreed. And Santana's contract wasn't part of the trade.

Feb 07, 2012 04:27 AM
rating: 2
 
Brandon R. Warne

I don't see how one can arbitrarily just throw that part out.

For one, the Twins would have net two picks just for holding onto him for the season.

But as far as the money goes, I'm pretty sure the deal was contingent on that negotiating window which allowed the contract.

Second of all, the Twins had offered a five-year extension to his existing deal (I think it was for $93 million).

You don't necessarily have to include the future contract to judge the deal on the whole, but I don't think it can be summarily dismissed, either.

Feb 07, 2012 07:57 AM
rating: 4
 
mattstupp

The contract was indeed a part of the trade in that Santana would only have waived his no-trade clause after an extension with the Mets had been agreed upon (or at least that's what he said at the time). That's what makes the trade difficult to evaluate. On a pure talent level, the Mets are the obvious winners. But they're now saddled with an enormous contract with the distinct possibility that Santana may never pitch for them again. Hopefully Santana recovers and pitches well enough, though.

Feb 07, 2012 06:17 AM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

True, but that 07-08 team needed a true number one starter. The trade gave them that. And there was no way the Mets could avoid overpaying him on the contract extension - that was a given.

Its easy to say now that the contract is bad because the Mets are awful, but in early 2008, it looked pretty good and it gave a contending team an ace.

Feb 07, 2012 06:58 AM
rating: 4
 
Brandon R. Warne

Needed a true number one starter to get where?

Feb 07, 2012 07:57 AM
rating: -3
 
Peter Benedict

I read two baseball websites: Aaron's blog, and BP. I've been reading them forever, and I'm glad to see this intersection. Congratulations, Aaron, and thanks, BP.

As to the trade: It was such a depressing year to be a Twins fan. This article is like watching a good movie version of any massive failure... it's well written, but sad.

Feb 07, 2012 07:49 AM
rating: 4
 
amazin_mess

Brandon - if you don't recall they were in the 2006 NLCS and were contenders in '07 and '08. So, yes, a frontline starter was a savvy investment at the time, despite how bad the contract looks now.

Feb 07, 2012 08:15 AM
rating: 4
 
Brandon R. Warne

Which is to suggest they got there before Santana, right?

I mean I see what you're saying, but adding that much payroll just for a sliver better chance to move on in the playoffs is bad business.

Now, to do so to bolster your rotation....yes that makes sense.

It was just the wording that I didn't agree with.

Feb 08, 2012 06:40 AM
rating: -2
 
amazin_mess

Fair enough.

Feb 08, 2012 10:36 AM
rating: 1
 
Brandon R. Warne

And for the record, didn't mean to jump all over you. My Johan Santana wounds are still raw. #TwinsFan

Feb 08, 2012 10:51 AM
rating: 1
 
AaronSF

Oh man ... what a rough off-season that was.

Gleeman does a great job here recapping the prospect shopping spree, but the worst part was often the veiled hints from those supposedly in the know that the Angels (Wood, Adenhart) or Dodgers (Kershaw (!), Kemp (!), Andy LaRoche) might jump in with an offer at any time. Speculation on top of speculation!

At the time, all I wanted was Hughes. Even now, I feel like things would have been different for him in Minneapolis. "We could have saved you, Phil! We could have taught you how to pitch to contact!"

Feb 07, 2012 08:44 AM
rating: 5
 
Agent007

Somewhere in the foggy corners of by Baseball Abstract memories, I recall an analysis that supported dealing prospects for an established star player. I think of it when Adrian Gonzalez steps to the plate, or even A-Rod. Dealing for Santana fits into that mold. Even with his arm troubles, it appears, the Mets came out on top.

Feb 07, 2012 08:57 AM
rating: 3
 
jfranco77

Phil Hughes in Target Field would be delicious!

Feb 07, 2012 08:59 AM
rating: 1
 
ObviouslyRob

And Red Sox fans' legs are getting tired of dancing on the grave of that deal that almost was.

Feb 07, 2012 09:49 AM
rating: 1
 
Deadheadbrewer

Hands-down, MN suffered far more. In 2008, the Twins (minus Santana) tied for the division title with the White Sox--each team winning 88 regular-season games. The Twins would lose the 163rd game to the White Sox and go home for the winter.

For $13M, Santana was worth 6.4 WAR that season for the Mets. To help prove to the fans that they knew what they were doing, the Twins had a terribly-unready Gomez play nearly full-time for them all year, to the tune of 2.1 WAR and numerous head-scratching rookie errors in the field, at the plate, and on the basepaths.

The four extra wins Santana would have contributed would have allowed the Twins to win the division by a decent margin, and then the Twins would have had the best pitcher in baseball starting a number of playoff games for them. Had he signed elsewhere in the off-season, the Twins would have had two first-round picks. The Mets at the time were said to have had perhaps the worst farm in MLB (besides Martinez, whom the Twins couldn't snag), so ANYONE they received would not have been a prize.

As a life-long Twins fan I still lose sleep over this one.

Feb 07, 2012 10:30 AM
rating: 10
 
Brandon R. Warne

That's the easy math; who knows what might have happened had Span made the club rather than Gomez?

Feb 08, 2012 06:39 AM
rating: 0
 
skarski10

I don't see how the Mets are clear winnings. They haven't won a WS, they haven't won a playoff series, they haven't won their division, they haven't even made the playoff since Santana joined the team. I would rather be the Twins and not be paying a guys millions of dollars not to pitch. The Twins lost out because of what they could have gotten. They only missed out on one year of Santana and some compensation picks.

And to all you Twins fans out there talking about losing sleep....I have a worse trade for you. The Braves-Rangers Teixeira trade. The Rangers have been to back-to-back WS with the help of Andrus, Feliz and Harrison. The Braves missed the playoffs that year, were out of contention by the trade deadline the next year and traded Tex to the Angels for Kotchman and Stephen Marek (neither either with the organization). Better yet the Angels used the compensation picks they got from the Yankees to drafts two guys named Mike Trout and Tyler Skaggs.

Feb 07, 2012 12:03 PM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

They missed the playoffs, but they were right there in '08 and enjoyed a fantastic year from Santana. They gave up garbage to get him. As I mentioned before, overpaying him on the extension was unavoidable.

Feb 07, 2012 12:16 PM
rating: 2
 
amazin_mess

And yes - that Texas-Braves trade was far worse.

Feb 07, 2012 12:18 PM
rating: 1
 
Cromulent

But isn't the real point that the Twins would have been better off riding Santana in 2008, letting him walk, and taking the draft pick compensation?

That argument was made repeatedly at the time, at least in saber circles, and still looks like it would have achieved the optimal outcome. In fact, the Twins were pretty good in 2008, going so far as to force a 163rd game - missing the playoffs only by losing the 1-game playoff with the White Sox.

I don't know who replaced Santana in the Twins' rotation that year but surely he would have been the difference in the AL Central that year, no?



Feb 07, 2012 12:55 PM
rating: 8
 
Matt Kory

In retrospect, the Red Sox have to be ecstatic they held on to Ellsbury and Lester. Though, now that I write that, having Santana in the rotation in '08 might have netted another World Series appearance (they made it to Game 7 of the ALCS that year, losing to Tampa) and it couldn't have hurt in '09 either. Still, probably not worth losing Lester and Ellsbury over.

Excellent thought-provoking work, Aaron.

Feb 07, 2012 15:22 PM
rating: 2
 
escapingNihilism

I remember the night well. I was 17 and it was my first weekend night with a drivers' license. and to make it the best night ever on top of that, the Mets agreed to terms with Johan on the extension that completed the trade. never an optimist, I was convinced that by any reasonable measure, NYM were favorites to win the NL East. and then life happened

Feb 08, 2012 02:23 AM
rating: 0
 
brianmacp

For what it's worth, the draft-pick compensation the Twins would have received for Santana had the Mets signed him as a free agent would have put them in position to draft Mike Trout -- assuming Elias ranked Santana over Francisco Rodriguez. Then again, the Twins already were in position to draft Mike Trout but picked Kyle Gibson instead, and who's to say they'd have rectified that mistake given a second chance?

Feb 08, 2012 07:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Peter Benedict

Hm... would the Twins have signed Mauer/Morneau if Santana had been on the payroll?

Feb 08, 2012 12:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

The interesting thing for the Mets was that it was a damned if you do damned if you don't spot that a rich club finds itself in. They had the $ and the talent to make the deal and the NY market dictates that they go for it whenever possible. But even while they were hammering out details of the extension--and Johan had them over a barrel, Met fans would have never forgiven the Mets if they'd failed to break the bank for him--wily analysts were breaking down how Johan's slipping skills gave the Mets a brief window to capitalize on his performance. Just like the Pedro deal. The Mets signed a pitcher for multiple years but only got two good ones.

Feb 09, 2012 08:28 AM
rating: 0
 
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