The Sports Daily > Firebrand AL
What could have been: A lament for Johan  Santana

While we’ve already technically experienced Opening Day, or at least Opening Morning from a half a world away, and the Nationals walked off a win in their new stadium to open the season stateside last night, “Opening Day” as we all know and love it was yesterday.
Until you have a full slate of games with number one starters going head to head in one game of one hundred and sixty two that somehow means so much more, you haven’t really had Opening Day. When I giddily welcomed baseball back into my life for the season and looked up and down the schedule of games today, two games piqued my interest more than the rest; Toronto @ New York and New York @ Florida.
Something about baseball season hadn’t really started until I could root against the Yankees as hard as I root for the Red Sox. But rain dashed my hopes of watching our rivals kick off their season. To tell the truth, I was more looking forward to the next New York game this Opening Day anyway.
At 4:05 pm in Florida, Johan Santana took the mound for the first time in a uniform other that the one representing the Twin Cities. As I kicked in MLB.tv to the Mets/Marlins broadcast, I couldn’t help but thinking “this could have been us.” Johan Santana could have been in Oakland this week preparing for his second start of the season for the Boston Red Sox.
As the game progressed and Santana looked exactly like the Johan Santana that we came to expect over the last few years, the thought haunted me more and more. I’ll come out and say it up front, I don’t begrudge the Red Sox for not aggressively pulling the trigger on the type of bounty in trade and subsequent contract Johan Santana would have commanded. I do however think that there is much more room to debate this move without the blinders much of Red Sox Nation put on as they clung to the young talent that would have been required and attempted to downplay Santana’s potential impact on this team.
Sometimes they say, the trades you almost make but don’t are as big as the trades that you do. Time will certainly tell whether Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and another piece (Michael Bowden or Justin Masterson likely) represented a bucket of future stars and too much to let go of for Santana. Santana’s $20 million dollar per year contract also would likely have signified this year as the last for Manny Ramirez and his $20 million annual tag in a Red Sox uniform while potentially alienating the incumbent ace Josh Beckett with a perceived $10 million dollar slight in salary difference. But every inning that Santana cruised through caused me to forget all that and lament what never came to pass.
A rotation headlined by Beckett, Santana, and Daisuke Matsuzaka would have owned Bottom Line Rob’s best 1-2 punch list three different ways. With Tim Wakefield and either Buchholz or Lester (whoever remained after the trade) anchoring the rotation until Curt Schilling returns or Bartolo Colon reemerges, the staff would have been better and deeper.
For this year at least, I think a full year of Coco Crisp is very similar to a full year of Jacoby Ellsbury. The differences in their current ability are rooted more in perception and small sample size than current ability. Ellsbury’s future shines much brighter than Crisp’s, of that there is no doubt, but the difference between their production this year will be much more marginal.
So as Santana spun from the mound for the Mets, I was more and more willing to ignore the next three to four years of young good depth the players who would have had to been traded away represented along with the payroll flexibility they represent. I was also more and more willing to forget that Santana’s contract is exactly the type of contract that the Red Sox have attempted to avoid of late. I wished for nothing more than the opportunity to watch him pitch every fifth game in a Red Sox uniform.
As I write this, I still don’t know what the right move was. I look at the acquisition of Josh Beckett as precisely the example as to why getting proven stud pitching for young unrealized talent is a potential win for both sides. But I also realize that as great as Hanley Ramirez has played, there was no equivalent to the arms that would have left in the Santana deal. Anibal Sanchez may have a no hitter, but he may also go down in history alongside names like Bud Smith.
I do think that four years from today, we are more likely to look back on this potential trade and laud the front office for their patience as we watch Clay Buchholz or Jon Lester prepare to start Opening Day 2012 with Ellsbury leading off and Lowrie turning the deuce with Dustin Pedroia up the middle. I also know that we aren’t as strong a team this season as we would have been with #57 on the mound at Fenway Park.