The Mets and Yankees Seek an Armed Revolution

How Joba Chamberlain and Johan Santana will make us forget last year's miserable baseball legacy

That is, it will if Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, is once again Cy Young–worthy. Jim Souhan, who covered Santana for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tells me: "Mets fans should be a little worried—just a little—about that higher ERA last year [3.33, his highest in six seasons]. He gave up the most home runs [33] of his major-league career. What disturbed me is that he was getting tagged early in games that meant something, and not, like a lot of great pitchers, in games where he was ahead by a lot of runs after the seventh and allowed solo home runs rather than risk walking batters.

"Another thing that bothers me is that, to my eye at least, a lot of the home runs came off his most devastating pitch, the changeup. It was like some hitters were figuring him out, waiting on the changeup. I'd say to Mets fans that that's the key to whether or not he's going to be great for you—pay close attention to how National League hitters adjust to that changeup."

Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus sees no cause for alarm in Santana's "off-season" in 2007: "All his significant numbers—strikeouts-to-walks, hits-to-innings-pitched—were about the same as in 2004 and 2006, his Cy Young seasons. A handful more fly balls went into the seats, but that was probably a fluke and not likely to happen at Shea Stadium."

No time for a slow hand, Johan. Santana must be great, like, now.
Marc Levine/New York Mets
No time for a slow hand, Johan. Santana must be great, like, now.
How soon does Joba go from reliever to starter?
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
How soon does Joba go from reliever to starter?

It better not, because the Mets don't need the Very Good Santana of last year—they must have the Super Santana. At a press conference shortly after he arrived in Port St. Lucie, he told reporters: "I'm not going to go out there and try and be a hero. I'm just going to be myself and, hopefully, with my help, we can make everyone forget what happened last year." But that's not good enough, and no one knows it better than Santana himself. "Johan didn't just go to New York for the money," says Souhan. "At this point in his career, he'd have chosen New York over Minnesota even if the Twins had found a way to match the money—though I don't think there's any way he could get the endorsements in Minnesota he's going to get in New York. He wants more run support, he wants to build his credentials for the Hall of Fame, and he wants to perform in front of a large Latin community. He wants the national spotlight. Of course, he's entitled to all those things."

He will be if he wins. He's got the spotlight, and the Mets need a hero, because the 2008 New York Mets are, for all intents and purposes, the 2007 New York Mets plus Johan Santana. Mets fans don't want any of this "with my help" stuff; the 15-13 record that Santana posted in 2007 isn't going to be the boost the Mets need. (After all, the departed Tom Glavine—who will always be unfairly remembered not for winning his 300th game in New York, but for getting knocked out in the first inning of his final game—was 13-8.) What Mets fans want is for Santana to make them forget 2007.

There's a very good chance he can do it. Santana takes 30 to 35 starts away from the weakest men in the rotation, which not only stabilizes the starting pitching but relieves the pressure on the relievers. Santana has thrown at least 219 innings for the last four seasons while leading the AL in strikeouts for three of those years.

The Yankees' postseason flop was not so dramatic as the Mets' short-circuit in the division race, and it was also more expected, since something similar had happened in the previous three postseasons. The Yanks' flaws are amazingly similar to the Mets': weak starting pitching that wears out the bullpen. Johan Santana could have been the antidote, the genuine ace the Yankees have lacked for years. It was certainly no secret that senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner wanted Santana, and at one point appeared ready to give up the future store to get him: some combination of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera, or even all of them—anyone but Joba.

For all the talk of a youth movement in the Bronx and the improved farm system, the Yankees have just one regular under 30: Robinson Cano at second base. This year's Bombers are banking on three pitchers—Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Chamberlain—who won a total of just nine games last year and must now, if the Yankees are to overtake the Red Sox and the improved Tigers, produce something like five times as many wins. "Our pitching," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, "is a work in progress." This may be a fair assessment, but Yankee fans don't want progress, they want results. And that means that all three of the Yankees' young right-handers will have to mature quickly.

The question of where Joba will mature—in the rotation or the bullpen—is a cause for anxiety. As a reliever, he is a proven phenom, and nothing short of a ban on bug spray can keep him from being the most dominating reliever in baseball. He struck out 34 of the 91 batters he faced last season, and his opponents' batting-average-against, 1.45, is smaller than Karl Rove's conscience. If the Yankees take him out of the bullpen, there is no longer a bridge to closer Mariano Rivera, the lack of which has plagued the Yankees for years. To put Joba in the rotation, the Yankees will have to replace him in the bullpen with a committee of ciphers who aren't household names in their own houses. To leave him in the bullpen means they may, sooner or later, have to answer the question: What good is a strong bullpen when your starters can't get through the fourth inning?

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