Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Johannes Gone

After a few months of haranguing, the Twins finally traded Johan Santana, pending his approval and signing a contract extension with his new team-to-be, the New York Mets. I like this deal a lot, for the following reasons:

A) It's good for the Red Sox. They nearly pulled the trigger on this deal, which might have weakened the team in the long term by dealing 4 stud prospects, but would have pulled them way the hell and gone out in front of the American League field, at least on paper. I went back and forth on whether I wanted them to do this; it's almost irresistible to picture a player of Santana's caliber in your team's colors, but I really like Jacoby Ellsbury and some of the other young players, and now the Sox are keeping them. After buoying Boston sports lately -- David Ortiz, Kevin Garnett and Randy Moss all came from prior glory in the Twin Cities -- Minnesota could have have screwed the Sox, but thankfully...

B) The Yankees didn't get him. Admittedly, it's nice to see the Yankees taking some pride bringing up some talent through their farm system rather than simply acquiring every high-priced veteran in sight. That's especially true now that they have Joba Chamberlain, who pitched at Nebraska while I was in school there. And their championship teams in the 1990s were built on young guys and a mix of wily veterans. You will note that A-Rod, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Carl Pavano and others of their ilk have not won a championship in pinstripes.

That said, I think the Yankees should have done this. With the trade and automatic extension, they would have forked over a lot of players and money, but they'd have the premier pitcher of our time locked up for the next five years. For the first time in a long time the Red Sox have pulled ahead of the Yankees, and a Yankee acquisition of Santana would have instantly closed that gap. So essentially the two teams enter the new season just where they left the last one -- the Sox re-signed Schilling and Mike Lowell, the Yankees re-signed A-Rod but no new pitching studs, so the advantage still lies in Boston's corner.

Plus, it's a big ol' middle finger to Rudy Guliani.

C) It's good for the National League. I have turned my interest in the Red Sox into fandom in the time I've lived here. But my first loves have all been in the NL. And the poor senior circuit is having a rough go of it -- they haven't won the All-Star game since I was in middle school, and the have only three of the last ten World Series championships -- 2001 Diamondbacks, 2003 Marlins and 2006 Cardinals.

Economically, it makes sense. The Red Sox have been escalating payroll to keep pace with the Yankees, and now teams like the Tigers and Angels realize they have to spend more and acquire bigtime guys to compete in the AL. That pulls up even teams like the Royals who have little chance of actually winning -- they don't want to be embarrassed, either, and encourage their fans to stop coming to games. So the Royals have to spend more money simply to tread water relative to their peers.

There's no arms race in the NL. The big-money teams, like the Mets and Cubs, don't rack up nearly the payroll as AL teams. They don't have to. All you need to do is have just enough talent to win the National League, and then take a roll of the dice in the World Series. That's what you've seen in the last decade: although the AL teams are superior, anything can happen in 4 to 7 baseball games, so sometimes the NL team pulls it out. The Mets have been spending more lately, to their credit, and so have the Cubs, although they're still the Cubs.

This is why I think the Mets 2007 collapse might be the best thing to happen to NL competitiveness in some time. The Metropolitans lost a 7-game lead with 17 games to go to the Phillies, and watched the playoffs from home. So now they want to ramp up the team, and they did it in a big way by acquiring Santana in principle today.

Alex and I have frequently bemoaned the plethora of small market teams in the NL, and their propensity to dump good players to the AL once they become too expensive. The Florida Marlins, of course, are the prime guilty partners, having exported Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis this off-season, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo and others after the 2003 championship, Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield after the 1997 season. Then there are the formerly great clubs, like the Reds and Pirates, now stuck in small-market purgatory. There are the Giants and Dodgers, not sure how much money they can really spend, and how much they need to spend in order to compete in the watered-down National League.

But if this becomes a greater trend, and the Mets go big, then the Cubs, Cardinals and Dodgers have to try to go big to keep up. Then the Brewers and Nationals have to spend some cash to keep their young players around in order to keep up. Then, some great day, the National League will start to resemble its former glory.

D) Santana now gets to take his rightful place as a big-market star, without the insane pressure of pitching for the Yankees.

I heard Buster Olney on ESPN earlier saying he thought this was actually the 4th-best offer the Twins had been presented, after the two from Boston and New York's. So another blunder by Minnesota. But they boxed themselves into a corner -- everyone knew they had to trade him, or he'd bolt after the season and they'd get nothing for him. So things worked out great for the Sox and Mets, indifferent to lousy for the Yanks and Twins. And I'm just fine with that.

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