OK, in an attempt to limit the number of comments that accuse me of hyping Johan Santana — which, for the record, is not our purpose here — let's begin this post with a partial list of reasons you should not trust the two-time Cy Young Award winner this season:
• Santana hasn't appeared in a major league game since he underwent surgery in September 2010 to repair a torn anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder, and...
• There's really not a great history of pitchers recovering from such procedures, and...
• Even before the shoulder surgery, Santana's strikeout rate and velocity were in multi-year declines, while his xFIP had been steadily rising, and...
• Last Friday, in his third spring appearance, he allowed four hits, two walks and four runs over 2.2 innings, and...
• In Wednesday's start against St. Louis, Santana's fastball was typically in the upper-80s, nowhere near his velocity in his peak seasons.
So c'mon, please don't accuse me of trying to move junk-grade fantasy investments here. That is not the intention today, or any other day. I've assembled several 2012 fantasy rosters, and the only place where I currently own Santana is an N.L.-only league — and even there, he was a reserve round pick, after the auction. This is definitely not a situation where I'm buying up shares.
When a brand-name player like Santana — a guy who was a top-tier fantasy asset not so long ago — is returning from a serious injury, we definitely need to track his progress and process all new data. At some point in your draft, if the league is deep enough, the name "Johan Santana" begins to look pretty appealing. It just sits there in the draft window, right next to "Roy Oswalt" and "Trevor Cahill," and, well ... you're going to be kinda tempted. Maybe you won't be tempted until Round 20 or so, but it's almost inevitable. Someone usually takes him. Santana is owned in 78 percent of Yahoo! leagues right now despite the fact that he missed the entire 2011 season and, again, he's coming back from a procedure that should frighten all fantasy owners. As Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan wrote in the feature linked above, "No one has solved the shoulder, at least not with any level of certainty."
There's no reason to believe that the New York Mets' medical staff has solved the shoulder, either. But we can at least report that Santana was extremely effective in his most recent spring start, facing the Cardinals' varsity lineup (Beltran, Holliday, Freese, Berkman, Molina, et al). Johan went 6.0 inning on Wednesday, throwing 69 pitches, allowing six hits and just one run. He struck out six batters, even though the radar readings were unimpressive.
New York manager Terry Collins offered unrestrained praise following Santana's start:
"Today was a giant step forward," Collins said. "To pitch to that lineup the way he pitched, to get up and down and recuperate, it was outstanding."
Strikeout victim David Freese described the lefty's stuff this way:
"He was coming in hard, spotting up, getting strikes inner half and then throwing his off-speed where he wanted it. I'm sure the Mets are pleased.
"He's not throwing 95, but he's a guy who knows how to pitch. He's a guy who hits his spots. If he can locate all three of his pitches, it's going to be a tough night for the offense. Every night."
So this is all fairly encouraging. The diminished velocity remains a concern (obviously), but Santana has managed to reach 92 mph in earlier appearances, a respectable number. There's reason to believe he can at least recapture some respectable percentage of his old value, though we're not likely to see another sub-3.00 ERA, nor another K/9 above 8.0.
We basically have to view Santana as a fantasy spot-starter entering the season, not an every-outing pitcher. Perhaps he'll deliver a stat line early in the year that we can take to the trade market.
If this were Deal or No Deal and you offered me something like 145 innings from Johan this season, with, say, a 3.75 ERA and 110 Ks, then I'd accept. Happily.
Does that seem like too much to hope for? Too little? Just right?
It's clearly not $24 million worth of production, but that's New York's problem, not mine.