Santana May Come Back As A “Crafty” Lefty

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When a pitcher has been a gunslinger—even a thoughtful, strategic gunslinger—it’s not an easy transition to go from “I’ll outthink you. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll blow you away,” to a more cautious approach without that backup weapon of pure power. But that’s where the Mets are with Johan Santana.

Yesterday Santana continued his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery with a “gush-worthy” bullpen session. He’s scheduled to have a minor league start on Friday and the Mets are hoping for a token appearance in the big leagues before the season’s over.

I saw the clips of the session; his arm angle looked to be higher than it had been in his entire time with the Mets—back to where it was with the Twins. It remains to be seen whether that’s a short-term, occasional thing like we saw with Pedro Martinez in his first season with the Mets or is contingent on how he’s feeling that day.

The optimism is fine; the results—so far—are encouraging. Santana has been guarded in his comments and diligent in his work habits and recovery; he’s not trying to be a hero and come back before he’s absolutely ready.

These are positive developments.

But if people are anticipating the Johan Santana from the Cy Young Award years with the Twins or even the Santana from his first season with the Mets, they’re asking to be disappointed.

Apart from the occasional flash you see from a once-great athlete, be it a baseball player; tennis player; or boxer, that Santana will never be seen again on a start-in, start-out basis.

Anyone who’s known greatness can recover that at one point or another—briefly—but it’s not going to return with the consistency that once was there.

It’s far more likely that Santana returns as a pitcher who uses control and changing speeds to keep the hitters off balance—can dial it up 3-5 times a game when he’s in trouble—and records his outs through guile and execution of a plan. His slider has barely been seen in his time with the Mets and it was a key to his dominance with the Twins; his fastball lost a few critical inches as well. Don’t expect that to suddenly reappear on a regular basis.

He’s not going to be Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine, Randy Jones or Frank Tanana—cunnythumber lefties—nor is he going to be Johan Santana circa-2004.

As a pitcher with a change-up/fastball repertoire, Santana has an advantage over other pitchers who’ve had a similar shoulder procedure and whose comebacks were slow and arduous and are only now beginning to bear fruit (Chien-Ming Wang) or have essentially stopped with their careers likely over (Brandon Webb).

Santana’s recovery is “on the right track” as the linked column says, but don’t believe that the Mets enthusiasm over Santana’s work is going to result in the devastating force that left lineups in ruins on a regular basis.

It doesn’t mean he can’t win; it doesn’t mean he won’t log innings and be a cog in the machine of a successful team. But he won’t be what he was. That pitcher is gone. Forever.