|BASEBALL 2008: Before throwing a pitch, Santana single-handedly turns Mets into favorites|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 28 March 2008 09:06|
First, it seemed he was headed to the Red Sox or Yankees, where he would undoubtedly swing the American League pennant race.
Then, no, he would remain in Minnesota for one more season before becoming a free agent.
In the end, after a long winter of waiting, Santana was traded to the New York Mets for four prospects in a deal that was on hold for three days while the sides negotiated a $137.5 million, six-year contract - record riches for a pitcher.
As talks neared the commissioner's deadline, he flew to New York on a private plane arranged by the Mets in order to meet with ownership. Once the swap was finally completed, Santana single-handedly made his new team a National League favorite - before he even threw a pitch.
All these expectations for one lefty with a dazzling changeup. Too much to ask, maybe?
``It's not like I'm trying to be a hero or anything here. I'm just going to do my job,'' Santana said. ``This is not tennis or something else where you know that you control everything and you're the one that has to do everything.''
Still, it's easy to understand why he's viewed as such a pivotal prize. Durable, dominant aces are almost as hard to find as cheap gas these days, and the 29-year-old Santana is the best of an elite bunch.
A two-time AL Cy Young Award winner (by unanimous vote in 2004 and 2006) with the cost-conscious Twins, Santana is one of just four pitchers to throw at least 200 innings with an ERA below 3.50 in each of the past two seasons.
Arizona's Brandon Webb, Atlanta's John Smoltz and Houston's Roy Oswalt are the others, while Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia and John Lackey of the Los Angeles Angels came close.
But Santana is the only one of the four who has been pitching in the AL, against tougher lineups with a designated hitter.
And, by the way, he's reached 219 or more innings with a 3.33 ERA or better for the last FOUR years, numbers unmatched by any pitcher in baseball. He also has 983 strikeouts since 2004, which is 139 more than anyone else during that span. He even won a Gold Glove last season.
``He's the best pitcher in the game, he and Roy Oswalt,'' St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said. ``He's a guy you don't want to get two strikes down against.''
Santana's only hiccup came late last season as he finished 1-4 in his final six starts for the fading Twins.
``A lot of people talk and had a lot of questions about me not throwing my slider. I was fine. It's just that things didn't work out as a team,'' he said. ``It's just part of the game. I struggled, just like anybody else, and that was it. I wasn't really trying to do anything different.''
For big league teams, landing a legitimate No. 1 starter is like striking gold. Just look at what Josh Beckett did for Boston last October en route to a World Series title.
And the free-spending Mets were in dire need of such a pitcher. The lack of a true ace was their most glaring flaw while they unsuccessfully chased a pennant the past two years. They came within one win of the 2006 World Series with an injury-depleted staff, then squandered a seven-game NL East lead with 17 to play last September and missed the playoffs in a historic collapse.
``I think that Johan Santanas of the world only come around once,'' New York general manager Omar Minaya said. ``Our team last year was a good team, and two years ago we had a good team. Now, the difference between those years and this year? Johan Santana. A front-line guy.''
The addition of Santana in early February generated plenty of excitement among Mets fans who were still angry about the September meltdown. All-Star third baseman David Wright even acknowledged it would help the club psychologically move beyond the embarrassment of 2007.
On the first official day of spring training, the contingent watching Santana's bullpen session included Minaya, owner Fred Wilpon, assistant GM John Ricco, manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson.
Normally quiet Carlos Beltran was so excited when he reported to camp that he had a back-at-you message for NL MVP Jimmy Rollins. Last winter, Rollins declared his Philadelphia Phillies the team to beat in the NL East and then led their charge past New York for the division crown.
``Let me tell you this: Without Santana, we felt as a team that we have a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division,'' Beltran said. ``So this year, to Jimmy Rollins - we are the team to beat!''
Santana, meanwhile, simply went about his business during a solid spring and seemed unfazed by all the hoopla.
``I've been doing this for a while,'' he said. ``I know what I have been. I know where I'm coming from. So I know exactly what I have to do on the field.''
Sitting in front of his locker at Tradition Field this month, he was playing as AC Milan in a video soccer game on his hand-held Sony PSP.
``I've got a brand new league, tournament,'' he said. ``I'm terrible.''
Santana will make his Mets debut in the season opener Monday at Florida. He joins a rotation that includes three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, healthy after returning from shoulder surgery late last season, and two 15-game winners from last year: Oliver Perez and John Maine.
The offense features speedy leadoff man Jose Reyes, who slumped badly last September, and first baseman Carlos Delgado, looking for a bounce-back season. There are newcomers at catcher (defensive-minded Brian Schneider) and in right field (Ryan Church).
The bullpen is anchored by All-Star closer Billy Wagner. But age and injuries are a big question mark for this club, built to win right now in its final season at Shea Stadium before moving into its new ballpark, Citi Field, in 2009.
``On paper, it's the most balanced team that I've been associated with,'' Minaya said.
All their talent makes the Mets a popular pick to win the NL East, though the Phillies and Braves should offer a stiff challenge at the very least. Philadelphia beat New York in their final eight meetings last season.
The Mets hope that will change with their new ace on the mound. Anything less than a trip to the World Series will be a disappointment.
``Guys like Santana, they can adjust to any environment,'' Randolph said. ``His personality and what I've seen being around him is really kind of conducive to a guy making an adjustment here because he's very open, very honest, very confident. I keep going back to that. You can just tell - he's bad. He knows he's bad. He knows it. The way he carries himself, the way he talks. The guys that have adjusted well in this town are the guys who have his kind of blueprint.''
Santana's rise to stardom was unexpected, though.
He signed with the Houston Astros as a teenager in Venezuela but was left unprotected in the 1999 winter-meeting draft (Rule 5), a major gaffe. He was selected by Florida and immediately traded to Minnesota, where he flourished.
Santana throws his pinpoint fastball above 90 mph with movement, and features a tough slider, too. But the pitch that really sets him apart is his baffling changeup, one of the game's best in recent memory.
He credits Bobby Cuellar, his Triple-A pitching coach with Minnesota in 2002, for helping him learn to trust and master the circle change. Santana throws it with his middle and ring fingers positioned across the seams instead of on them, giving the ball a four-seam rotation when it leaves his hand.
Combined with consistent arm speed and a perfect release point, that makes his changeup look so much like a fastball at first that even the world's best hitters are often left flailing in vain, way out on their front foot.
``It just comes out and the changeup just almost parachutes and just slows down halfway to the plate. It's pretty amazing,'' Wright said.
So why don't more pitchers use that grip?
``I don't have an answer for that,'' Santana said with a smile.
AP freelance writer Eric Pfahler contributed to this report.