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New Beast of the East

Adding Santana makes the Mets the favorites

Posted: Wednesday January 30, 2008 2:50PM; Updated: Wednesday January 30, 2008 5:33PM
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Johan Santana
Johan Santana gives the Mets the top-notch ace they've been desperately seeking.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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Take the best pitcher in baseball and put him into the lesser of the leagues. Move him from a killer division to a tepid one. Stick him into a good pitcher's park against thinner lineups, on top of a rotation with a couple of guys that won 15 games apiece last year and another who happens to own the lowest ERA of anyone still throwing, and it's immediately clear what you have.

The best team in the National League East. The best one, almost certainly, in the NL. An instant, and legitimate, World Series front-runner.

And a reason, at long last, to talk about the Mets again without snickering.

Johan Santana's impending trade to the Mets will be, when and if it's consummated later this week with a contract extension, the rarest of baseball swaps, one that completely and immediately transforms a team and the balance of power in the league. Let's face it: The Mets, without Santana, are just another NL East schlub. They are a bunch of chuckers without an ace, a collection of hitters who cease to hit at the most inopportune times, all marched around by a sometimes stone-mugged manager who presided last year over one of the most embarrassing nosedives in baseball history.

Without Santana or someone a lot like him, the Mets are non-factors. And in New York, that's almost worse than being terrible.

What general manager Omar Minaya has pulled off here, in this stunning series of fortunate events, is to make the Mets mean something again. Not only in New York -- which is hard enough -- but throughout baseball, too. After last September's epochal collapse -- the Mets led the NL East by seven games with 17 to play, losing to the lowly Marlins on the final day of the season to complete their Big Apple-sized choke -- that's barely short of miraculous.

For the longest time in this race, he Mets were perceived, as they often are, as an also-ran. While the winter-long Santana trade rumors played out in Boston and across town with the Yankees, the Mets showed some interest, but they mostly fiddled. It's not that they couldn't afford the $20-plus million annual contract extension that Santana will be asking for this week (and for at least five more years after '08, too). It's that the Mets couldn't offer the package of players that the Twins needed in order to trade their two-time Cy Young Award winner. Or so it was thought.

So Minaya relegated himself to doing business on the inside pages, trading away one-time trumpeted prospect Lastings Milledge to the Washington Nationals for outfielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider. Minaya traded for catcher Johnny Estrada and then let him go. Minaya made some other moves but, in effect, the Mets talked a lot and did little.

But then the Yankees backed off their sexiest offer for Santana, headlined by pitcher Phil Hughes, and the Red Sox wouldn't sweeten theirs (topped by either pitcher Jon Lester or outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury). Suddenly, Minaya found himself back in the hunt for Santana, a player who has the second-best WHIP -- walks and hits per inning pitched -- of any active pitcher. (The one with the best WHIP --1.03 to Santana's 1.09 -- is the Mets' Pedro Martinez, who also boasts a lifetime 2.80 ERA, best among active pitchers.)

When Santana pressured the Twins to trade him before the start of spring training or not trade him at all -- Santana has full veto power over any trade -- new Minnesota GM Bill Smith was stuck. He went for the prospect-heavy package that the Mets offered; outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey.

And the Mets, out of nowhere, are players again. Real players.

"Obviously, it's a shot of energy," Mets third baseman David Wright told Newsday upon hearing about the potential trade. "Anytime you get arguably the best pitcher in the game on your team, the team looks pretty good going into spring training."

The Mets are giving away a potentially huge part of their future by trading four of their top seven prospects. But for what they stand to get in return -- a durable, determined, soon-to-be 29-year-old lefty who has thrown at least 200 innings and struck out more than 200 batters in each of the past four years -- this was nothing short of a hijacking by Minaya.

In fact, this could be Minaya's gem, bigger than the signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran or the acquisitions of closer Billy Wagner or first baseman Carlos Delgado. All he has to do now is ink Santana to a contract extension, ensuring that the trade goes through. Because if it doesn't, it's disastrous for both him and the Mets.

In the meantime, Mets fans can happily envision their future with Santana at the top of their rotation. Santana's durability should suffer none in Shea Stadium against teams without designated hitters, and his win total (he was 15-13, with a 3.33 ERA last season with the Twins) should increase with what should be a better lineup around him. His ERA could plummet, too; pitchers who switch from the American League to the NL often lower their ERAs by as much as a full run. Santana, barring injury, should immediately give the Padres' Jake Peavy and the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb a run for the NL Cy Young.

Put Santana at the top of a rotation that includes a should-be healthy Martinez (he started only five games last season), the team's two 15-game winners from '07, John Maine and lefty Oliver Perez, and ageless Orlando Hernandez, and the Mets have, without much doubt, one of the deepest rotations in the league. Mike Pelfrey, the team's best young pitcher whom Minaya refused to part with in the Santana dealings, is also in the mix.

The defending NL East champion Phillies have improved, too, with Brad Lidge's addition to the bullpen pushing Brett Myers back into the rotation. The Braves, the other contender in the East, added Tom Glavine -- he was 13-8 with a 4.45 ERA with the Mets last year -- to their rotation.

Out in the NL West, the Diamondbacks, who won 90 games last year with a dreadful offense, are improved after a trade for Dan Haren. The Dodgers have added Japanese starter Hiroki Kuroda. Randy Wolf has joined the Padres. None of those pitchers carry anywhere near the impact of Santana's arrival.

With Santana in tow, there's no question that the Mets, incredibly to many, are again the class of the East. And of the league, too.

Snicker at that.