Back in the off season of 07-08, there was one story that dominated all others. One of the best pitchers in Baseball, Johan Santana, was on the trade block. Given Johan’s high salary demands and the prospect of an enormous extension being part of the deal, the universe of potential suitors was relatively small. The Yanks were at the front of the list, with Boston and the Mets as other possibilities. You may recall some of the internal Yankee front office wrangling at the time, where Yankee GM Brian Cashman was dead-set against including Phil Hughes in any package. But he was outvoted by other elements of the Yankee hierarchy, with Hank Steinbrenner at the head of the list. They reluctantly included Hughes, were told by Twins GM Bill Smith that it still wasn’t nearly enough to make a deal, at which point Brian Cashman walked away from the table and never returned. Yankee fans, local sportswriters and pundits were apoplectic when Johan was later traded to the Mets, in what appeared to most observers to be a very weak package of prospects.
But Brian Cashman was a man with a plan. One of the reasons why Cash didn’t want to trade Hughes for Santana was that he was looking at the trade from a long term perspective, not just looking at the time it was to be made. Given Johan’s somewhat smallish build (6’0″ 195) for a power pitcher, he profiled as the type of player who would typically break down and/or decline in his early 30s. Locking him up until age 36 looked like the type of deal GMs regret halfway through. As a 21 year old with an ideal pitcher’s frame (6’5″ 240) who was the total package according to scouts, Phil Hughes projected to have his best years ahead of him. So looking down the road, just as Johan would be entering his decline phase as a player, Hughes would be entering his prime. Cash didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the 04-08 teams loaded with aging, overpriced and under performing veterans. He insisted on total control of Baseball Ops in 2005 for the purpose of reversing this trend, and he was sticking to his guns.
Looking at things as they stand today, it appears Cashman’s long term projection appears to be coming to pass. Johan Santana and Phil Hughes careers are presently going in two opposite directions. I’m not talking about just last night’s horrendous start from Johan, but of the recent trend line of both pitchers. Johan’s fastball has been down all year, sitting in the 88-90 MPH range for his first 6 starts. This is nothing new, as the link shows his velocity has been declining annually for the past 4 seasons. While he’s been an effective pitcher for the Mets over his first two+ seasons with the team, Mets fans have never seen the guy who threw 96+ in his prime. His Walk and SO rates are also trending in the wrong direction, despite pitching in the National League in a terrific pitcher’s ballpark. He has also had two (relatively minor) surgeries in his two seasons with the team, one on his knee and another on his elbow.
The Mets gave up nothing for him, so the trade always made more sense for them considering the prospects involved and where they were as a franchise at the time. Twins GM Bill Smith was said to be asking the Yanks for Hughes+, the ‘+’ being some combination of an outfielder (Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson) and another lesser minor league arm, with Jeffery Marquez mentioned in some packages. Given the Twins love for defensive-minded CFs and the fact they chose Carlos Gomez from the Mets over their other OF prospects, it stands to reason the OF included in the deal would have been either Gardner or A-Jax. There were reports at the time that Bill Smith didn’t love Melky, so including one of the younger, more talented players would have come as no surprise.
By no means am I arguing that this is this a slam dunk win at this point for Brian Cashman. There are still 4 1/2 more years to go on Johan’s contract, and much can change on both sides between now and then. You also have to factor in that the Yanks missed the playoffs in 08, and that Johan would have almost certainly helped them get there that year. The Mets have got 2 good seasons out of Santana starting for them every 5th day, while Hughes 08 season was a big disappointment and his successful 09 campaign was limited to bullpen duties. Johan has been far more valuable to the Mets in the 08/09 seasons than Hughes was to the Yanks. But long term, I think the decision Cashman made was right, and as Hughes rounds into the pitcher we all hoped he could be it’s time to give Brian some props for his patience and foresight. Johan will be a very expensive, declining pitcher just as Hughes is entering his prime years making no money. Long term, I think Cashman made the right call.
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