It looks like Johan Santana may be done as a big-league pitcher. He's battled injuries the last few years, and now he's re-ripped a shoulder muscle that was operated on before. He threw the Mets' first-ever no-hitter last June, but it took him 134 pitches to do so (Johan was never a complete-game guy, and why the Mets let him wing it out that long is beyond me.) It may have hastened the end of his once-stellar career.
The Twins, of course, can't congratulate themselves on their foresight in trading Santana for Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Delois Guerra, and whatever the Mets found underneath their passenger car seat. Nobody expected Santana to have injury problems. Pitchers who blow out their arms generally have a funky delivery (think Dontrelle Willis) or feature a joint-jarring high-90's fastball/low-90's slider combo (think Francisco Liriano, and cry.) Santana's best pitch was his changeup, the pitch you teach Little Leaguers to throw so that they don't hurt themselves.
The pending Santana free-agency situation was botched from the trade deadline in 2007, when the Twins (struggling, but still hopeful in a weak division) shipped off competent infielder Luis Castillo, one of Santana's best friends on the squad. This move also ensured that Nick Punto (the worst everyday hitter in baseball that year) would maintain a starting spot, and the Twins were tanking on the season. Santana had given indications previously that he might have been amenable to a home-team discount; after the Castillo trade, he was a sure-fire goner.
Santana's obvious intention to sign elsewhere after 2008 gave the Twins zero leverage shopping him in the offseason, and they bluffed far too hard on reasonable offers from the Yankees and Red Sox (would anyone like to have Jacoby Ellsbury today? You would? Nyah nyah nyah, you don't have him.)
There'd been bad blood before; in 2003, after projected starter Eric Milton went down with a preseason injury, Santana thought he should have been promoted from the bullpen to the rotation. The team signed Kenny Rogers at the last minute instead. Rogers ended up having a good year, and Santana became a full-time starter midway through the season, yet no doubt he resented having to wait for his turn.
Let's all hail, however, the best pitcher Twins fans have ever seen since Jack Morris, or even since "that was a good pitch, low in the strike zone, the batter just reached out and hit it" Bertie B.
Santana has the last playoff victory in Twins history; game 1 versus the Yankees in 2004. (Game 2, you'll recall, was the one where with the score tied in the 8th and speedy Luis Rivas on third and only one out, Gardenhire inexplicably let rookie Jason Kubel face Mariano ("Now You Die, Meat") Rivera, and Kubel predictably struck out. Coulda been a two-game lead going back to the Dome, in Nathan's first season here . . . maybe if Mauer hadn't been injured all year . . . ahh, what of it, the Red Sox won, everyone liked that story.)
Santana won the pitching Triple Crown in 2006 (Ks, Ws, ERA) but the magic year for him was 2004. Post All-Star break: 13-0, 11.13 K/9, and an insane 1.21 ERA. He broke Bertie's team-record for strikeouts, and they seemingly ALL came on the changeup. Remember watching him live during that stretch? Sluggers knew the change was coming, tried to time it, and flailed helplessly. The Dome radar gun would read "80" and the crowd would absolutely erupt. Santana was like a knuckleballer who could throw 93; there was simply no way to hit him except close your eyes, take a whack, and pray.
It's interesting, perhaps, that the Twins' first rule-40 draftee to make the Opening Day roster since Santana, reliever Ryan Pressly, has been assigned . . . number 57. If Pressly catches some of the old Johan mojo from that uni number, great -- but if he doesn't, the number should be retired. Strife at the end or not, Santana was the most talented player this side of Joe Mauer to wear Twins colors in the last 20 years, and he deserves all the memories and love we can throw his way.