With Santana, Mets ease September pain

The New York Mets are a clean MRI and $140 million – give or take a park-view condo – from making half the city's baseball fans forget the last couple of weeks in September, which, really, is all you can ask from a pitcher.

Johan Santana cost them four prospects, none Mets fans will miss in the immediate future. In return, they get a left-hander who wins Cy Young Awards, doesn't believe in arm injuries, averaged almost 18 wins over the previous four seasons and doesn't turn 29 until March.

They get a pitcher who immediately becomes the best left-hander in their history (sorry, Kooz, El Sid, it's not even close), who'll go back-to-back opening days at Shea Stadium and Citi Field, who'll stand on a mound in late September and stop dead the most horrifying losing streak they'd ever worn.

Hell, he stopped it Tuesday afternoon, when word spread the Mets had awoken four months since their epic collapse, the one that could've taken their manager and general manager with it.

"I was so happy I proposed to my wife again," a friend of mine, Mose, a Mets fan from Brooklyn, shouted into the phone.

I had no idea what that meant. But he sounded pleased.

Basically, while the Yankees and Red Sox deferred, the Mets replaced Tom Glavine – he who gave it all up in game 162 – with Santana. They pushed Pedro Martinez to No. 2. They lined up an ace against John Smoltz, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Cole Hamels, maybe even Josh Beckett.

They gained about six games in the standings in January. Of course, that's too late for September, but who's thinking about September today?

Ultimately, this could be the best outcome for the Yankees and Red Sox.

While the Yankees share a city and all the back pages with the Mets, they share a division with the Red Sox, a division (and a game) the Red Sox took back last season.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman did not want to swap out pitching prospects for another massive salary – no matter how talented the arm that came with it – but also could not have the Red Sox stack Santana on top of Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling. So, with an eye on the Red Sox and an ear to Hank Steinbrenner's daily pronouncements of deadlines and rescinded deadlines, and mindful of his own thin-ish rotation, Cashman jumped, but with some restraint. He offered Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera, but not Joba Chamberlain or Ian Kennedy. Eventually, he even withdrew Hughes.

Theo Epstein, as far back as the winter meetings, was said to be having serious reservations about becoming this generation's Yankees, too extravagant in players and payroll, a notion that arose in the aftermath of the Matsuzaka signing and gained momentum in the postseason. It was a rare day in October when the question was not posed, "So, are the Red Sox the new Evil Empire?" He would sigh. Epstein offered Jon Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury, but not both, in separate packages.

The climate, therefore, had changed. Where it once appeared he was conducting business in the perfect setting – Red Sox vs. Yankees, mediocre free-agent pitching, Yankees desperate to take back the East – Minnesota GM Bill Smith gradually found a less welcoming market. The early frenzy flattened. The Yankees and Red Sox composed themselves. Dan Haren, whose 2007 statistics rivaled Santana's and at a far more reasonable cost, was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, on and off the market before Smith could take a breath. Erik Bedard and Joe Blanton still were available. The Seattle Mariners, among the dark horses for Santana a month before, were chasing Bedard instead of Santana.

Meanwhile, Smith's backup plan – retain Santana until the trading deadline – was becoming less attractive. Even in a highly professional clubhouse run by Ron Gardenhire and to some degree by Santana himself, the daily trade questions and rumors and idle chatter would become a throbbing distraction. Already the Twins were patching a rotation damaged by the free-agent loss of Carlos Silva and the trade of Matt Garza, and a public reputation damaged by the flight of popular center fielder Torii Hunter.

With the Yankees and Red Sox no longer bidding against each other, Smith had the Mets, who had serious issues in their rotation and, perhaps, just enough prospects to get a deal done. The Mets had other incentive, as well. They just had blown that massive September lead in the NL East, were labeled underachievers and chokers, and would wear that for as long as it fit. Also, the Mets would open a new ballpark in 2009, and the closest thing they had to an ace – Martinez – was 36 years old, coming off shoulder surgery and on an expiring contract. His days of carrying a rotation probably were over.

Smith, a baseball lifer on the administrative side, replaced Terry Ryan in time for the offseason that would reshape the Twins, a model small-market franchise. And though model small-market franchises deserve a special place in baseball heaven, they don't sustain because they can't spend through their mistakes or hold their superstars. While Francisco Liriano was due back from Tommy John surgery, good news in the Twin Cities, it would be Smith who would make the decisions – or at least stand in front of the decisions – to acquire Delmon Young, let Hunter walk and accept the Mets' offer over what appeared to be at least equal offers from the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Mets did not ever consider moving Jose Reyes. They did not have to move outfielder Fernando Martinez. Instead, for outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra, they get Santana. And, if they'd like, they get to forget September.