One of the saddest baseball stories of the season has already occurred, with the news out of Port St. Lucie last week that Johan Santana had re-torn his shoulder capsule, leading to a second season-ending shoulder surgery, and one that may ultimately derail his successful career. While how and when the injury occurred is up for debate (it might not be the worse guess to submit that 132-pitch no-hitter could have been the cause), the fact remains that the pitcher who was signed as an ace for the Mets may never pitch again. With the high price of pitching (let alone quality pitching) in free agency or via trade, it is imperative to keep pitchers healthy, and Johan’s latest shoulder injury should be an important lesson for the Yankees in how they treat Michael Pineda‘s return from his own shoulder surgery.
As it currently stands, the Yankees parted with one viable starter in Hector Noesi, and the highly-touted Jesus Montero (who, let us not forget, once stood between the Yankees and the acquisition of Cliff Lee in 2010), for Jose Campos and Michael Pineda, both of whom were effectively lost for the season last year with injury. To that end, the Yankees used their one silver bullet in the farm system by trading Montero, and after roughly a year and a half, have seen nothing in return for their bold move. Pineda has previously had a timetable of returning around June or July as he works back from a shoulder tear. While he has not had any setbacks thus far and has already begun to throw, he still is on the slow road to recovery as he seeks to rejoin a team decimated by injury. Under these injury-riddled circumstances, the Yankees should take a lesson from Johan’s injury and not rush their young starter back from injury, nor should they push him once he does return.
Johan’s recovery has been well-documented as a grueling, painstaking process that was much more than a year in the making. And when he returned, it was fair of the Mets to have the confidence in the recovery and training of their player to have no limits on his ability. That does not, however, excuse them allowing him, with his injury history (elbow, shoulder, etc.) to throw 134 pitches, no-hitter or not. That is simply unacceptable. I understand that one cannot quantify just how important that moment was the Mets as a franchise, and certainly to Johan himself. That doesn’t make it right. No-hitters are a big deal. and I know how important that was to Mets fans. But that doesn’t excuse the Mets allowing that to occur, under the circumstances of Johan’s history with injury, aside from the shoulder capsule.
Johan’s tenure with the Mets has been injury-plagued, at best. For their six year, $138 million dollar investment, the Mets have gotten just 109 games out of Johan, including an entirely lost season following surgery for a torn shoulder capsule. The Mets made a huge investment in a player who had already begun to show red flags prior to joining their team, with his velocity declining enough that Yankees GM Brian Cashman declined to trade then-prospect Phil Hughes for the pitcher. The Mets should have had the foresight to realize that a healthy Johan was more important than a no-hitter, regardless of the Mets’ prospects for contending in 2012, or even 2013.
Johan’s splits from before and after than game cannot be denied: he had an 8.27 ERA in 10 starts following the bid, and ultimately wound up finishing his season on the DL. Even if the no-hit bid did not result directly in a re-tear, surely it didn’t help, either. The Mets owed themselves and Santana more by exposing him to potential re-injury with his history and knowing the significance of the surgery he had had two years earlier. This is not to say that they should have “babied” him with 100-pitch games, but 134 pitches doesn’t exactly do anything to protect the player, either.
In their own way, the Yankees, with a fairly mediocre farm system (and a dearth of major-league ready players), made a huge investment in Pineda by trading away Montero in the exchange. Again, it’s worth repeating that this was the prospect that Cashman refused to inlcude in a deal for Cliff Lee. With the mandate to get the payroll under $189 million in 2014, free agency looming for Hughes, and the contracts that are already on the books, it is imperative that the Yankees look to keep their talented younger players in the fold, particularly as it relates to pitching.
The biggest boon for the team would be a return to form for Pineda. However, in addition to taking Pineda’s return slowly, the Yankees will need to monitor the player even when he “returns,” unlike the Mets. They have already demonstrated a willingness to think long-term about such significant injuries: when David Cone returned from aneurysm surgery, he was deep into a no-hitter of his own, and what did Joe Torre do when a reasonable pitch count was reached? Walked out to the mound and took the player out of the game. Regardless of the Yankees issues with injury and lost players this year, it would behoove them to continue to think long-term with Pineda, not just for the benefit of the player, but for the benefit of the organization, as well, something that the Mets did not do with Johan.
Johan Santana will always live in Mets lore for what he accomplished, and that should not be taken away from him. And despite the fact that the Mets were not due to compete, one has to wonder if Johan (or the Mets) would have taken the no-hitter in exchange for several more years of serviceability (including maybe a contending year?) and the chance to finish out a career on his terms. Coming back from injury is not just the immediate recovery, but the long-term management of the injury, as well. As Santana maybe closes the door on his career and gets set for shoulder surgery, the Yankees should take note and take care of Micahel Pineda as he works his way back, or else, by not looking at the big picture, the Yankees may make the same mistake as their neighbors in Queens, and be doomed to experience the same outcome.