Johan Santana is the 800-lb. gorilla.
OK, so he's really like 6 feet tall and 195 lbs, when it comes to contract negotiations, he's King Kong. The man can essentially write his next contract, and his employer, whomever that may be, just has to sit there and take it. The Minnesota Twins would love to hold onto him for another year, not to mention the rest of his career. They'd love for him to be the centerpiece of a championship team, but of course, so would the other 29 teams. Realistically, the Twins are not in the habit of committing scores of millions of dollars to players, even to players as good as Santana.
While their owner, Carl Pohlad, could buy any and all of the free agents he wanted with all the billions of dollars he has, that's never been his style. He's content to let the team pay for whatever the team can afford to pay on its own merits, and that is not likely to change any time soon. And that is not likely to include a pitcher who makes $25 million per year for half a decade or more.
Which means that they've gotta trade him. The "Now or later?" question is fairly easy to answer: Now. The only reason to hold onto Santana for most or all of the 2008 season is if you think he's going to help them to the playoffs. There's no way they'll get more for him in trade next June or July than they will now, so that's not a motivation to keep him. But would a reasonable assessment of the 2008 Twins suggest a team that has a good chance to make the playoffs?
The Twins finished third in the AL Central in 2007, behind the Tigers and the Indians. Cleveland looks like a team that could be very good again next year, and there's little reason to think that the Tigers are suddenly going to go away. Minnesota's pitching was very good last year, with and ERA that ranked 4th in the league, and keeping Santana, they could be even better next year, as some of their young pitching matures. The hitting was atrocious last year, as they finished 12th in the 14-team American League in runs scored, but they're a good bet to improve at a few different positions, if only because some of the players they ran out there in 2007 (Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Luis Rodriguez, Rondell White) were so horrendous that there's basically nowhere to go but up. Still, even with a substantial improvement, the offense would probably only be mediocre, and they'll have a hard time beating out the Tigers and the Tribe, much less the Yankees or Red Sox or any other Wild Card contender.
So it's not likely that the Twins will be contenders next year, which means that they ought to just suck it up, take the PR hit they'll get by trading Santana away this winter, and build for 2009 and beyond.
This is good news for the Yankees, for while the other 29 teams would all love to have Johan Santana on their roster, only a handful of them can actually afford him, and the Yankees are at the top of that list. Even fewer of those actually have the type and number of prospects the Twins would require to pry Santana away from them, and the Yankees (along with the Red Sox) top that list as well.
Buster Olney says that Peter Gammons says that the Twins would like a package of RHP Phil Hughes, CF Melky Cabrera, and minor league CF Austin Jackson. Based on name recognition alone, that looks like a heck of a lot of talent to give up for one guy, especially if you're then going to have to give that guy 6 years and something like $150 million. But how much are they giving up, really?
Let's start with the best-known commodity first: Melky Cabrera. The Melk Man has been a Yankee Regular more or less for the last two seasons, and I would say that his production level has been adequate, at best. He's very young, and by the virtue of being a major league regular at age 21 alone, his future looks bright, but based on his skills, I'm not so sure. He actually regressed in 2007 instead of improving, losing a few points in batting average and a lot of walks, without gaining anything in either power or speed.
By most accounts and metrics, he is a good or very good defensive center fielder, but whether his bat will ever come around enough to justify an everyday job on a championship team is another question entirely. My suspicion is that he can make a career out of being "serviceable" in center field, with just enough of a bunch of different skills that he's useful, and no glaring weakness (like being error-prone or striking out too much or otherwise pissing off the management and/or fans) that would justify benching or trading him. As long as he's making something below the major league average salary, he's not killing the team, but once he hits arbitration and free agency, look out. There are not a lot of center fielders who can get away with hitting less than 10 homers a year, and the ones who can have skills that Melky does not, like prolific base stealing or high batting averages. At this point, in my mind, Melky could go either way. He's far from a sure thing.
Phil Hughes, on the other hand, seemed like the closest thing to a sure one the Yankees have had in a long time, at least he did until he came up to the majors this year and took a few lumps. The praise for Hughes as a minor leaguer came from far and wide, and though he did not come to the American League and start mowing down batters like Kerry Wood or Mark Fidrych, his chances f being an excellent major league starting pitcher are still as good as anyone's we've ever seen. Again, anything is possible, but he should still be very good. With that said, he my still need another year of seasoning in the majors before he really gets the hang of it up in the AL, and the Yankees are nothing if not impatient with their prospects.
Austin Jackson, a name with which you may not be familiar, was the centerfielder for their High-A Florida State League team, and he hit .345 in half a year. (The first half was spent at Class-A Charleston, and he was decent there, but not spectacular.) Jackson's batting average and slugging percentage (.566) would have led the FSL if he had enough at-bats to qualify, and he hit 10 homers and stole 13 bases in half a season. All-told, he stole 32 bases in 43 attempts at two levels, and had 53 hits for extra bases in 493 at-bats, all at the tender age of 20. Unfortunately he also struck out 107 times and while he will take an occasional walk, they are just that: occasional. Once every 12 plate appearances or so.
Jackson is a kid, and unlike Phil Hughes or Melky Cabrera, he's a kid that's likely at least two full years away from being a major leaguer, if he ever makes it at all. Right now the best evidence in his favor is a half a season of at bats in the Florida State league in which he blew the competition away, but the list of players who have done that may not be riddled with successful major leaguers. For all anyone knows, he may regress to hitting .260 when he gets promoted to AA Trenton next year, may never learn patience at the plate, or may not be able to handle the defense of center field as he progresses through the ranks. After that .345 and 10 homers in Tampa, his value may be as high as it will ever go, so even if he doesn't go to the Twins in a trade for Santana, the Yankees might be well served to send him elsewhere now, as they did with C.J. Henry.
A variation of the trade from George King of the NY Post (and this is a suggestion, really, not a rumor) has Ian Kennedy in the package instead of Jackson, and this to me seems a lot more costly. Kennedy blew through three levels of the minors last year and then impressed nearly everyone, especially opposing batters, in the three starts he made in the majors before getting shut down for the season with a strained muscle in his back. Long-term, though, he should be great.
So, in short, a trade of Melky, Austin Jackson and either Hughes or Kennedy would be, or should be, a no-brainer for the Yankees. Of course they should do it. One pretty good bet to be a good pitcher in one or two years, on centerfielder who's got some potential but will probably never be a star, and a 20-year old in A-ball with exactly half a season of really nice looking stats? Why wouldn't you make tat trade? The money's not an issue for the Yankees, and they desperately need an ace, especially if Andy Pettitte doesn't return. With Joba Chamberlain and whichever of the two (Hughes or Kennedy) doesn't go in the trade, they've still got a pretty affordable starting rotation in 2009 and beyond.
Which is exactly why that trade will never happen. It's just not enough for the Twins.
26 November 2007
Johan Santana is the 800-lb. gorilla.
Posted by Travis M. Nelson at 11/26/2007