(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)
Five winters ago, the Yankees balked at trading a 21-year old Phil Hughes for Johan Santana, who, at the time, was widely considered to be the best pitcher in the game. Since then, both pitchers have experienced more than their share of ups and downs, making it difficult to evaluate Brian Cashman’s decision. Even now, it’s hard to pass a definitive judgment, so, instead of looking back at that choice, what about if the Yankees’ GM had the opportunity to make it once again?
After throwing a no-hitter, Santana is back on top of the baseball world, which is remarkable when you consider there was a possibility he might not even be pitching at this point in the season. Not only has Santana returned from should surgery earlier than many expected, but his performance has been better than even the most optimistic Mets’ fan could have hoped. In fact, the lefty has pitched as well as he did during the prime of his career. So, you can’t blame the Mets if they’re celebrating the no-hitter for more than obvious reasons. Finally getting the no-hitter monkey off the franchise’s back is definitely a plus, but, perhaps even more important to the team’s long-term success, being able to shed the burden of Santana’s contract could wind up being the ultimate benefit.
Including the last four months of this season, the Mets still owe Johan Santana $47 million over the next two years (pro-rated 2012 salary, 2013 salary, and 2014 buyout). Although approximately $8 million of that is being deferred at a nominal interest rate, the commitment to the 33-year old pitcher is a big one, especially for a team that, despite it’s early season success, is in the midst of an on-field and financial rebuilding process. That’s why any opportunity to trade Santana would have to be taken seriously by the Mets.
The biggest obstacle to trading Santana right now is the Mets’ proximity to first place. However, if the team starts to regress while the left hander continues to excel, GM Sandy Alderson could find himself in a position to trade an onerous contract on favorable terms. Although the Mets would likely have to pick up at least some of the cost, any relief from the burden would be in the long-term interest of the organization. In addition, a healthy and effective Santana would likely rate a nice return, particularly if the Mets were willing to eat some of the money owed to him. Finally, the relative parity throughout the league should mean an increase in the number of potential suitors for all available talent, which would be yet another advantage for Alderson.
One team that might be in the market for a pitcher is the cross-town Yankees. With Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes each having equally disappointing seasons, inconsistency from Hiroki Kuroda, and age/health related risks inherent with Andy Pettitte, the Bronx Bombers may have no choice but to be a buyer of starting pitching at the deadline. According to reports, the Yankees are most interested in the Cubs’ Matt Garza, but if that deal doesn’t work out, Santana just might be the next best option (assuming, of course, that neither Cole Hamels or Tim Lincecum are put on the trading block).
If the Mets were willing to cover about half of the money owed to Santana, the left hander would certainly make sense for the Yankees. Not only would he give the team another veteran left hander at the reasonable price of $12 million per year ($24 million split over the rest of this year and next), which is about what the team is paying to Kuroda, but his contract would also clear the books by 2014, the year the Yankees are reportedly interested in dipping below the luxury tax threshold. From the Mets standpoint, their commitment would be reduced to $23 million, but because $8 million of that is deferred, the present value owed would be much less. However, Alderson would have to come away with more than just financial flexibility. The real sticking point to a potential deal would be the player(s) sent in return.
Brian Cashman wasn’t willing to trade blue chips for Santana when he was at the height of his powers, so why would he do so now? In other words, if Alderson is intent on acquiring another Zack Wheeler (the blue chip he obtained from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Carlos Beltran), the two sides probably won’t be able to make a deal. But, what if the two teams revisited the past in a slightly different way?
Trading Phil Hughes for Johan Santana seems like a bizarre proposal on the surface, but once you get past the irony, such a deal could make sense for both teams. Although Anderson would probably prefer to acquire a top prospect like Manny Banuelos, holding out for a blue chip would eat into the cost savings. So, instead, trading for a reclamation prospect might provide the most overall value.
Not only does Hughes fit the profile of a pitcher in need of a change of scenery, but his fly ball tendency and reliance on a straight fast ball seem much better suited to the National League (and, in particular, the more spacious Citi Field). Because he has been on the Yankees’ radar for so long, it’s easy to forget that Hughes is only 26, so if the Mets could finally unlock his potential, they’d have another future piece in the rebuilding puzzle. Hughes is no sure thing to find himself in Flushing, but even the best minor league prospects come with risk (remember, Hughes was one himself). What’s more, the biggest risk could be Santana’s ability to stay healthy. Considering the Mets’ resources are expected to be limited over the next few seasons, paying Santana to spend more time on the disabled list just might be a chance the organization can’t take.
The Yankees balked at trading Hughes for Santana when he was considered one of the best prospects in the game, but you’d have to imagine they’d be much more receptive to including him in such a deal now. That doesn’t mean the Mets would be eager to acquire him, but with the just the right amount of financial incentive, an exchange of the two players doesn’t seem outlandish at all. The two sides are probably at least a month from starting to explore trade opportunities, but it’s worth keeping this potential deal in mind. So much has already been written about the first time Cashman was presented with this decision, so a sequel is probably inevitable.