Admit it, you’ve already forgotten about the Giants. (Those Super Bowl commemorative books you didn’t buy are on the half-price tables.) The real reason for your Giants euphoria was that you needed something to help you get over the Mets’ and Yankees’ late-season humiliations. But the Super Bowl high didn’t last, did it? By the afternoon of the following day, you woke up with a hangover and moaned: “But what about the pitching?”
Here’s what about the pitching. The hopes of New York’s teams rest on two powerful arms—one left, one right. The lefty, Johan Santana, age 29, is called, by most observers, the best pitcher in the game. The right-hander is 22-year-old Joba Chamberlain, who, many observers feel, has the potential to be the best pitcher in the game.
Early projections had the Mets finishing behind the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the NL East this season, but Mets fans—and more importantly, Mets players—believe they can win the division with Santana. If he’s as good for the Mets over the next six years as he’s been for the Twins in the last five, he’ll become the third-best pitcher in team history, after Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden—and he may well prove, over the long haul, to be better than Gooden.
Chamberlain looks to be the most intimidating right-hander that the Yankees have had in more than half a century. “In his velocity and his fearlessness,” says baseball writer Roger Kahn, “the pitcher he most reminds me of is Allie Reynolds, who was the ace of Casey Stengel’s five consecutive World Series winners from 1949 to 1953.” Like Reynolds, who was part Creek Indian, Chamberlain is Native American on his father’s side—the Winnebagos of Nebraska—and, like Reynolds, he can both start (which he did in college, for Nebraska) and relieve (which he’s been doing for the Yankees). “A big difference between them,” says Kahn, “is that Chamberlain is eight years younger than Reynolds was when he came to the Yankees. Another difference is that he throws even harder than Allie.”
In terms of experience and media coverage, the two couldn’t differ more. Chamberlain has thrown fewer than 400 major-league pitches, but his meteoric rise, fueled by the polio-stricken, wheelchair-bound father who taught him how to pitch, has already inspired more copy in a fraction of a season than Santana has in eight seasons and 251 games.
Joba is everyone’s All-Native-American Boy who likes to chew gum (he supposedly sticks the wads on the back of the pitching mound after each inning), text-message, follow Ultimate Fighting matches on pay-per-view, and watch movies with his favorite actor, Jamie Foxx. He is a beat writer’s dream, rattling off one-liners at warp speed. Venezuelan-born Johan Santana, magisterial and sometimes seemingly aloof, is polite but bored by long interviews. That’s OK, so long as he wins. The Mets didn’t get him to entertain anywhere but on the pitching mound.
Despite the differences in their personalities and experience, though, the two men have one thing in common: They are the linchpins for the city’s baseball teams this year. The fortunes of the Yankees and Mets, the hopes of their fans, and the reputations of their front offices will rise and fall with them. The expectations, and thus the stakes, couldn’t be higher for both Santana and Chamberlain.
If on September 12, with 17 games left to play, you had bet on the Mets to lose the division, Vegas would have given you nine-to-one odds. It took Philadelphia Phillies fans the better part of a generation to get over the team’s famous swoon toward the end of the 1964 season; last year’s Mets choke makes the ’64 Phillies collapse seem like a hiccup.
How humbling was the experience? The first joke to make the rounds after the season ended was that vandals broke into the box office at Shea Stadium and returned their playoff tickets.
If there was one good thing to come out of the disaster, it was that it pointed out a clear difference between the Yankees and the Mets. The Yankees would have reacted by finding a scapegoat and canning him; Omar Minaya and the Mets reacted by addressing the problem. Luckily, that problem was easy to identify: The rapidly aging Mets pitching staff was a disaster waiting all season to happen. The team nearly got away with its lack of pitching depth in 2006; in 2007, the team ERA rose faster than Village Voice ad rates, from 3.5 runs per nine innings in April to a stupefying 5.7 the final month. In those infamous last 17 games, Mets pitchers allowed nearly 6.8 runs per game.
As to whether the starters or the relievers were most to blame, that argument was academic and pointless: Both were horrendous. The bullpen, though, had an excuse: The collapse of the overaged starting rotation dragged an overworked relief corps down with them. The obvious cure was a starter who could eat up more innings—and it went without saying that they must be effective innings.
Santana’s six-year, $137.5 million contract, the richest ever for a pitcher, will be cheap at the price if the Mets win the pennant and—here’s your late-season homemade sign at Shea—erase the disgrace. The money the Mets save from Verizon alone in those calls to the bullpen should take the sting out of his paycheck.
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  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.”
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?
Chamberlain is blessed with a torrid, hopping, 100-plus-mph fastball and a slider that breaks down with such force that, according to last year’s pitching coach, Ron Guidry, “when you don’t get good wood on it, it feels like you’ve just whacked a bowling ball with a broomstick.” This year’s pitching coach, Dave Eiland, and special pitching instructor, Rich Monteleone, have been working with Joba to try and develop a curveball and a changeup to his arsenal—the latter a pitch that can be devastating for a pitcher with a great fastball and slider, as hitters who have faced Santana can testify.
But why does a reliever need four pitches? Clearly, the repertoire that the Yankees are planning for Joba is that of a starting pitcher, and just as clearly, that is where his greatest value to the team is. If the Yankees don’t take that plunge this year, how much of the season is Joba destined to spend sitting in the bullpen, wondering how he’s going to make a difference in a game that the Yankees are already losing by two or three runs in the fifth inning? Last year, the front office had to impose the Joba rules on Joe Torre when it came to the care and handling of the team’s most valuable young asset: not using him on consecutive days, not bringing him in in the middle of an inning, etc. For now, it’s not clear what the new Joba rules are, or who—manager Joe Girardi, GM Brian Cashman, or Hank Steinbrenner—will be making them.
For that matter, it isn’t clear why Johan Santana isn’t a Yankee. The players that the Mets gave up to acquire one year of Santana’s services were outfielder Carlos Gomez, a 21-year-old outfielder who hit .232 with two home runs last year; Philip Humber, a 25-year-old who pitched just three games for the Mets in 2007, with an ERA of 7.71; 22-year-old pitcher Kevin Mulvey, who appeared in 26 games in AA minor-league ball in 2007; and Deolis Guerra, a 19-year-old who was 2-6 for the St. Lucie Mets last year. There are no apparent blue-chippers in that quartet. If the Mets could get Santana for those four, why couldn’t the Yankees close the deal when they were ready to offer Hughes, Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera?
A source in Minnesota who asked not to be quoted told me: “The Twins overplayed their hand on this one. They were playing all the time to get Joba, but the Yankees wouldn’t budge. When it came down to the wire, all they could get were four frankly inferior prospects from the Mets.” But if the Twins were willing to settle for that kind of deal from the Mets, why couldn’t they at least have picked up the phone and inquired as to whether the Yankees might still be willing to offer a package that included Kennedy or Cabrera? “That’s a good question,” said the source. “They may have and found that the Yankees were no longer receptive.”
And why, one wonders, would that be? Surely not because giving up Kennedy or Cabrera or both wouldn’t be a reasonable price to pay for baseball’s best starter. Some said that signing Andy Pettitte made Santana less essential, but it’s hard to believe that Pettitte, at age 36 and with a history of injury, canceled out the need for a starter of Santana’s quality. Anyway, the Yankees had Pettitte last year and still finished in second place in the AL East.
At a time when Yankee revenues appear to be at an all-time high, the front office, it seems, didn’t want to spring for the $130-odd million they knew it would take to sign Santana to a long-term contract after 2008. A popular term dropped by Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner in interviews was “fiscal responsibility”—a phrase that, in the words of Marvin Miller, first executive director of the Players Association, “translates into English as ‘lower salaries.’ ” Some have speculated that Hank’s younger brother Hal—the Yankees’ general partner, but also chairman of the board of Yankee Global Enterprises—had his eye on the profit margin, and so was strongly against a huge, multi-year contract for Santana or anyone else. If this is true, his logic is as easy to figure as the math: With a new stadium full of luxury boxes and fewer seats (and higher prices for them), the organization is pretty much assured of sellouts at most games starting in 2009. Why take a chunk out of profits with big salaries when the profits are already guaranteed?
The front office put out a great deal of propaganda about wanting to win with homegrown talent, and since the farm system has been woefully neglected until recently, that seems to make sense—so long as you invest the same money in your farm system that you were willing to pay out for high-priced talent. And, the argument goes, the Yankees have been burned in recent years in acquiring high-salaried big names such as Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright, Tony Womack, Kyle Farnsworth, Carl Pavano, Jason Giambi, and, last year, Roger Clemens. But Johan Santana isn’t 41, as Randy Johnson was when he came to the Yankees in 2005, or 44, like Clemens last year, or prone to physical breakdowns like Wright. There are no sure things when it comes to the gamble of a six-year contract, but Santana is the best bet in the game.
After the Mets closed their deal, a number of columnists, following the “fiscal responsibility” line that the Yankees had put out, concluded from reading blogs and listening to talk shows that, to quote a writer at Slate, “many Yankee fans don’t want to buy the pennant. . . . They want to out-Moneyball small-market teams like Cleveland and Oakland to prove that they aren’t simply buying success.” One wonders what city these writers live in; no Yankee fan of my acquaintance ever cared how much money his team spent to win a pennant so long as they won, and hasn’t envied anyone in Oakland since the Yankees took Reggie Jackson away from the A’s. If the Mets win the NL pennant, the joy of no Mets fan I know will be tempered by guilt because his team “bought the pennant.”
There’s a matrix of possibilities surrounding the Mets and Yankees in 2008, and nearly all of them hinge on Johan and Joba. If Santana is as good as he’s supposed to be, the Mets should win at least the NL East. Coming the season after the biggest letdown in New York baseball history, Omar Minaya will be a hero for pulling off the deal that turned things around—the deal the Yankees couldn’t make. What’s more certain is that if Santana doesn’t come through, the Mets won’t win, in which case Willie Randolph—and possibly even Omar the Deal Maker—may be gone.
If the Yankees win the American League pennant—and that’s the measure for success they always pose for themselves—it will almost certainly be because Joba blossoms into a superstar. In this case, the Steinbrenners will have been justified in not anteing up to get Santana. If they fail to win the pennant for the fifth consecutive year, then a lot of disgruntled fans are going to be asking why the Mets could afford Johan Santana and their team—the richest in sports—couldn’t. Somebody’s head will roll, and it won’t belong to a Steinbrenner. Brian Cashman looks like a likely candidate. And one thing is for sure: Every game Santana wins will reap double benefits to the Mets, as it will have everyone in the Yankees’ front office wincing.
The best-case scenario for everyone is that we have another Subway Series—the odds of which are roughly the same as the Mets and the Yankees turning out to have the two best pitchers in baseball.