Commentary

Santana's huge contract could be telling sign for future

Originally Published: February 1, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It was a great day in the life of Johan Santana.

Any time you've just become the highest-paid pitcher in the history of pitching, that's a day right up there with Christmas.

And it was a great day in the life of the New York Mets.

Johan Santana
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonJohan Santana will be paid an average annual salary of $22.92 million, second only to Alex Rodriguez's $27.5M.
Any time you've just traded for the best pitcher in the solar system -- without touching any of the surrounding cast you were planning on putting around him -- that's a sensational day. It's a lot better day than, say, fumbling away a playoff spot in Game 162, anyway.

And it was definitely a great day in the life of C.C. Sabathia, too. Definitely.

Any time you're the incumbent Cy Young Award winner and the salary bar for star pitchers just got nudged nearly $4 million a year to the north, that's a day to pop the nearest champagne cork -- because next winter, this could be you. Almost certainly will be you (health permitting).

So that contract extension Johan Santana negotiated with the Mets on Friday -- all $137.5 million of it -- made a lot of people happy, all right. He's a franchise-changing guy. He's a pennant-race-changing guy. And now he's also a salary-structure-changing guy.

Which means he already has left an indelible imprint on the baseball universe, before he has even thrown his first pitch as a Met.

But here's the big-picture question that needs to be asked on a day like this:

Was this deal really good for the sport of baseball? The business of baseball? The carefully resuscitated competitive balance of baseball?

Tough question to answer.

It wasn't a great day in the life of the Minnesota Twins. We know that.

They'd already lost one Face of the Franchise, in Torii Hunter, this winter. Now there goes the other Face of the Franchise, The Great Johan, off to make his fame and fortune in the big city back east.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Makes you wonder what this says about the Twins and where they're heading as a franchise, even as a new ballpark rises in the shadow of the 7th Street Bridge.

Did they have to let those two men go? Or did they merely choose to let them go? Before you answer, stop. Think about it. The answer to that question is more complicated than you think.

"I think the Twins are wrong," said an official of one big-market club. "They're going into a new stadium, a taxpayer-funded stadium. Their owner [Carl Pohlad] is the richest owner in baseball. And this guy [Santana] isn't just another player. Since Kirby Puckett, has there been a more important player on the Minnesota Twins than Johan Santana? I don't think so.

"Remember, the sport is making a fortune. They're taking in a ton of money from the central fund, [the internet] and revenue sharing. So it's not that they can't do it. They choose not to do it."

But a high-ranking official of a middle-market team had a different take.

I think the Twins are wrong. They're going into a new stadium, a taxpayer-funded stadium. Their owner [Carl Pohlad] is the richest owner in baseball. And this guy [Johan Santana] isn't just another
player.

--An official of a big-market team

"I don't know for a fact whether the Twins can afford a contract like that or not," he said. "But it's not sensible to do it, whether they can afford it or not. Just because a team from New York does something doesn't mean it's smart for every team to do it ... because even if you can afford it, your cushion is so much less."

This, friends, is shaping up as the classic baseball debate of the 21st century.

A decade ago, the answers were so much clearer. A decade ago, in a sport with a broken revenue structure, it was easy to pick out the teams that couldn't compete for the biggest stars in baseball. Wouldn't wasn't even part of the discussion when we talked about teams like the Twins.

Now, however, revenue sharing has changed everything. There are clubs out there taking in $70 million before they sell one ticket. Yep, $70 million. So their options, their choices aren't so clear-cut.

We've heard people in baseball say over and over this winter that the Twins could afford Johan Santana. Could.

Not might. Not probably. Could.

The Twins even, essentially, admitted that to the world, didn't they? They offered the guy 20 million bucks a year for four years, on top of the $13.25 million they already owed him.

It wasn't quite enough bucks, and they knew that. It wasn't quite enough years. They knew that, too. But it was a sure sign they could have afforded this man, right?

They just made a choice -- that another couple of million a year wasn't prudent, and that another couple of seasons, for a pitcher, really wasn't prudent. But it was a choice, not a mandate -- a choice that had baseball components mixed in with the financial components. Even the Twins will admit that.

Earlier this winter, we had a long talk with new Twins GM Bill Smith about what he would tell his fans if this became the winter when the long-time Faces of their Franchise -- Santana and Hunter -- waved farewell.

"Every organization has lost players -- popular players," Smith said. "That's the system in our sport. Go back and look at the Red Sox after they won the [2004] World Series. They lost Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon. Pedro was a great pitcher. Johnny Damon was probably as much the face of the franchise for them as anybody on that team. But you have to get past that and make decisions. Every organization has to make them."

The Twins just handed Justin Morneau a six-year, $80-million extension. They made that decision, to keep Morneau and build around Morneau and commit to him for six years, because they can now afford to do exactly that. Their payroll has climbed steadily for seven straight years. When their new ballpark opens in 2010, this could be a $100-million-payroll kind of team, or thereabouts.

So down the road, maybe the people of Minnesota will see fewer Johan Santanas and fewer Torii Hunters drive down the exit ramp. Maybe.

"We hope so," Smith said. "But some of this is just the nature of the game. From 1987 through the '90s, we had those teams of Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek. We had a group of players who came and went. We traded Frank Viola, and Gary Gaetti, and Tom Brunansky, and Jeff Reardon. Jack Morris was here for a year and left. But every organization goes through that.

"So I hope the new ballpark will allow us to keep our core players longer. But you've still got to make good baseball decisions, regardless of payroll. And I think you'll find that this organization has made pretty good baseball decisions over the last two decades."

Whether this deal will rank with those other good decisions is something we don't know yet. Get back to us in 2011 and we'll have that verdict for you.

I don't know for a fact whether the Twins can afford a contract like that or not. But it's not sensible to do it, whether they can afford it or
not.

--An official of a middle-market team

But you'll notice that you don't hear the men who run this team whining about their sorry lot in life. They had decisions to make, about two very popular players. They made those decisions. Now they'll move on. As always.

This is no longer an age where every small-market and middle-market team is destined to lose all its good players. Not anymore. Check the free-agent market this winter. Ask yourself where all the stars went. Know where they went? They went back to their old teams before they ever hit that market. That's where.

Now maybe this Johan Santana deal tells us that this system still isn't going to allow teams from places like Minnesota to keep the true elite players that pass through their clubhouse. We're willing to open that debate any time.

And this Johan Santana deal definitely tells us that the New York Mets are about to become a revenue-generating monster to rival that other revenue-generating monster in their town. ("The Yankees of the National League," one GM called them Friday.)

We're still not sure what the implications of the Mets' new ballpark and burgeoning TV network will be for the rest of the league. But that's a story for another time. Not a real distant time, either.

But we are sure about one thing:

What happened around that negotiating table in New York on Friday has changed the landscape of baseball -- in many ways, large and small. On the field and off. It just might take a while to sift through them all.

Yes, it was a great day for Johan Santana and that new team he's about to play for. But for the rest of the sport? Well, it was just a day that reminds us there are many monumental baseball decisions for all those other teams to make.

As always.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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