A note before you begin reading: I've been writing the following for several days and while I want to find an angle, I just can't seem to. In the end I'm ridiculously wishy-washy, and this whole piece will probably be a perplexing ramble that many people will call a complete waste of time. So on this pitchers and catchers eve you've been warned that you read the following at your own peril.
It's hard to argue that a team which just added the best pitcher on the planet to what was already a very good team doesn't become an instant favorite in the National League East. Johan Santana is in his prime, and he hasn't shown any signs of wearing down. He's the pitcher the Mets have wanted since Frank Viola toed the rubber at Shea.
I've done a lot of looking over stats, and trying to figure out what Johan means to the Braves (yes, the Braves). What is interesting about Santana's history is that he's only won 20 games once. I would have thought that the best pitcher on the planet would have more 20-win seasons - but maybe I'm just mincing stats, or maybe it's just Minnesota's lackluster offense - but even then... only one 20-win season?
I started looking for signs of decline with the mighty Johan, and stumbled upon the pitchers he lost to last year: Chad Gaudin, Levale Speigner, Andrew Miller, Shaun Marcum, Mark Buehrle, Scott Kazmir, Mike Maroth twice, Fausto Carmona twice, and C.C. Sabathia four times. It's not a list devoid of big names, but it also includes several also-rans.
Against Cleveland last year, Santana was a big 0-for-5 in six starts. That's one of Minnesota's big division rivals, and Johan didn't come out on top against their top starters, Carmona and Sabathia. Can we read anything into that? Cleveland seemed to do their damage with the longball, hitting at least one in every win - occasionally those were the only runs. Certainly Cleveland benefited from good pitching of their own, but they were also able to get the necessary runs across when they faced Johan.
Does this tell us that Johan doesn't get up for big games, or does it tell us that the opposing pitcher really brings their A-game when they face Santana.
When we faced him last June we got the better of him, but Wickman blew a brilliant outing by Tim Hudson and the Braves lost the game. We did a lot of striking out against him, but McCann started the scoring off with a homerun in the fifth. Matt Diaz got two hits off him and he pitched around Chipper Jones with two walks in three plate appearances.
Teixeira hasn't fared too well against him in his career with only four hits in 17 at-bats. Omar Infante is a big 0-for-16 against Santana, so we'll want to make sure and keep him on the bench when he's on the mound. Mark Kotsay has also not made an impact, just 1-for-9 lifetime against Santana.
If Santana has a growing weakness it is the homerun ball. His 33 homeruns surrendered last season were 9 more than in any other year. None of the parks in the NL East hold the ball as well as the Metrodome does, but compared to other parks around baseball, NL East parks hold the ball pretty well, and compared to the parks he come from in the AL Central, the NL East parks hold the ball much better (save for Philly).
No pitcher is unbeatable, and certainly the Braves don't think he is either. In head to head matchups the Braves have usually played ace pitchers tough even though they may look somewhat vulnerable; beating Jake Peavy in 2006 despite striking out 16 times comes to mind. I have little doubt that Johan will be very impressive when he faces us next year, but that doesn't mean he'll get the better of us in all those meetings.
I'd be fine with being his Cleveland of 2008, and Smoltz his Sabathia. If that truly is how he brings it in rivalry games, then maybe we have a fighting chance. Of course, he could pull an Oliver Perez and own the Braves. That's the line between success and failure that we will have to wait to find out until the season starts. The Mets could hold a great advantage over the Braves if Perez continues his dominance against us and Santana is also able to dominate.
The real question is this; does the acquisition of Santana make the Mets the favorite in the NL East? After all, they still have Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Alou (though the Braves have Chipper, Tex, Frenchy, and McCann). They have both youth and experience on their team (much like the Braves). They have a rotation which features aces and injuries (the same situation the Braves are in). In the end it will come down to what it always comes down to, healthy players and productive players. All of these players on both teams have had their slumps, but they have also had their hot streaks.
Right now I see both the Braves and the Mets as equals on paper - the Santana trade bringing the Mets up to par with the Braves. I don't think we can extrapolate any prediction from either team's schedule, though the Braves are said to have easier interleague matchups. This will be one of those years where we just have to wait and see how these teams perform once they finally get on the field. I can see each team getting big leads in the division, I can see each team falling behind, and I can see both of them neck and neck for six months.
The one thing that is certain is that the Mets had to make this move. Not only to answer the moves the Braves made this off-season, but also to help erase the collapse that made the Mets miss the playoffs last year. To their credit they made this move without sacrificing the core of their team or even all of their top prospects. Even if it was just for one pitcher throwing every five days, the effect a bona fide ace can have on a pitching staff is tremendous.
Yeah, that's about where I stopped. I figured I could continue to write non-conclusion conclusions until I gave Peter Jackson a run for his money. The one thing I have determined through this process is that anyone who tells you they know who the favorite is in the NL East is full of it.