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Prospect Retrospective: Johan Santana

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Johan Santana
Johan Santana
Kevin C. Cox

Prospect Retrospective: Johan Santana, Rule 5 Master

Johan Santana's shoulder has given out again and he'll miss all of the 2013 season. There's a reasonable chance that his career may be over. Let's take a look at his unusual development path as a prospect, and where his career stands in context.

The Houston Astros signed Santana as a free agent out of Venezuela in 1995. He pitched in the Dominican Summer League in '96, going 4-3, 2.70 with a 55/21 K/BB ratio in 40 innings. Good numbers, but at this point he was your basic anonymous 17-year-old.

Santana spent '97 with the Gulf Coast League Astros and pitched poorly, posting an 0-4 record, 7.93 ERA, and allowing 49 hits in 36 innings. At this point he was regarded as a kid with a live arm, but a guy who needed a lot of refinement, just like a million other guys in rookie ball. He wouldn't have been more than a Grade C prospect who might or might not develop.

Moved up to short-season Class A at Auburn in '98, he made progress, posting a 4.36 ERA in 15 starts, with an 88/21 K/BB ratio in 87 innings. At this point, he would rate as a Grade C "with higher potential" or a C+ prospect, improving, but still too young and raw to get overly excited about. His best mark was his K/IP ratio, which would mark him as a prospect to watch.

Santana spent '99 with Michigan in the Low-A Midwest League, going 8-8, 4.66 in 26 starts, with a 150/55 K/BB in 160 innings. His K/IP and K/BB were solid, but he gave up 162 hits in 160 innings. His stuff was continuing to get better, and he had made strides with his command, but there was no particular reason to think he was about to break through in a big way.

The Twins saw something, however. Picking first in the Rule 5 draft, they picked right-hander Jared Camp, then traded him to the Marlins for Santana, who the Marlins picked with the second choice. . .the Marlins preferred Camp over Santana, but were afraid that the Twins would pick Camp, so the two teams came to a pre-deal to make everyone happy. I gave Santana a Grade C+ in my 2000 book, noting that he "has skills" but was "unlikely" to stick in the Majors.

The rebuilding Twins decided they had nothing to lose by keeping him in the Show. He spent all of '00 on the roster, posting a poor 6.49 ERA and allowing 102 hits in 86 innings. I saw him pitch several times for the Twins that year. His velocity had picked up into the low 90s compared to the 88-90 MPH he had posted at Michigan. But his breaking ball and changeup were erratic, his command was unreliable, and at times he looked completely lost.

Injuries limited him to 44 innings for the Twins in '01, but he did pitch better, dropping his ERA to 4.74 with a slightly improved K/BB ratio. In '02 he emerged as one of the best swingmen in the league, going 8-6, 2.99 in 27 games, including 14 starts, with a 137/49 K/BB in 108 innings. His ERA+ was outstanding at 150.

Twins fans and deep baseball followers were very aware of his progress, but he wasn't that well-known yet for casual fans. Heading into 2003, I wrote a "hot stove" article for ESPN, projecting that Santana would be one of the best pitchers in baseball within two years.

Unfortunately the full article no longer appears accessible, but I did find this snippet:

" ... If you're looking for a sleeper pick for your fantasy team, or just enjoy watching a potential future star, keep a close eye on this guy over the next year or two ... Going into 2002, Santana had a reputation as a live-armed pitcher who needed to sharpen his command and prove he could stay healthy. Santana did all that and more in '02. His raw numbers are impressive enough: 8-6 record, 2.99 ERA, 137/49 K/BB ratio in 108.1 innings. Look at that last sentence again; Santana struck out 137 guys in 108.1 innings. Santana's strikeout rate of 11.38 per nine innings was, among pitchers with 100 or more innings, the best in the American League. In fact, in all of baseball, only five pitchers with 100 or more innings fanned more than 10 men per nine innings pitched, and only one of them, Randy Johnson, posted better numbers than Santana."

Santana went 12-3, 3.07 with a 148 ERA+ in 158 innings for the Twins in '03, again used as both a starter and reliever. He finally moved into the rotation full-time in '04 and was spectacular, going 20-6 in 34 starts, leading the American League with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts. He also led in K/BB ratio, K/IP ratio, WHIP, and ERA+, winning a Cy Young Award in the process with a 7.5 WAR.

Entering 2005, I made a "Comparable Pitchers through Age 25" list for Santana and came up with the following comps for him, using a combination of Sim Scores and PECOTA and leaving off any active pitchers. I came up with:

Herb Pennock
John Smiley
Waite Hoyt
Sandy Koufax
Roger Moret
Juan Pizarro
Mario Soto
Bob Knepper

Not a bad list. Pennock, Hoyt, and Koufax are Hall of Famers. Smiley, Soto, Pizarro, and Knepper were all fine pitchers but didn't last long enough or dominate consistently enough to rank as Hall guys. The worst guy on the list was Moret, who had personal issues.

As you know, Santana continued to dominate, his 2004 through 2008 seasons being one of the great pitching runs in history. He led the league in ERA three times, strikeouts three times, ERA+ three times, K/9 three times, WHIP four times.The huge trade to the New York Mets and subsequent giant contract didn't turn out the way New York wanted, though on a per-inning basis he remained very effective even when injuries limited him to fewer than 200 innings in '09 and '10. The no-hitter he threw in 2012 may end up being the cap of his career.

Assuming that his career is truly over, where does he rank now historically?

Santana is 139-78, .641, with a 3.20 ERA, 136 ERA+, 3.44 FIP, winning two Cy Young Awards and making four All-Star appearances, with a career WAR of 47.4. Excluding active pitchers, his current Sim Score list is David Cone, Ron Guidry, Jim Maloney, Sonny Siebert, Kevin Brown, John Tudor, Denny McLain, and Mort Cooper.

Santana's 47.4 WAR puts him in the neighborhood of fellow Twin/Met Frank Viola (48.0), Mark Langston (48.0), Guidry (47.7), Sam McDowell (46.0), John Matlack (45), and Vida Blue (45.3).

These guys were all excellent pitchers, but didn't last long enough to reach Hall of Fame standards. I think that's probably Santana's fate as well. I think the Guidry comp is an apt one.

Without question, Santana is one of the best Rule 5 picks in history. His numbers in the low levels were OK, not terrific, but showing potential. . .like dozens of other Grade C+ pitchers. The key for Santana was better consistency with his slider and changeup. The fact that Santana developed so well is testament not only to his own skills and work ethic, but to the player development system and scouting program in place in Minnesota in the early 2000s.