Amidst reports the Yankees and Twins are talking-4-real about the latter trading Johan Santana, the New York Sun’s Tim Marchman proclaims the hurler, “a left-handed Pedro Martinez, though that would insult his uniqueness.”
“He is the best pitcher in the sport as unquestionably as Martinez once was, and as Greg Maddux was before him” gushes Marchman, who just became Peter Greenberg’s favorite baseball writer of all time.
Still in his early prime, Santana throws in the middle 90s, changes speeds masterfully, and has unrivaled control, and thus should be able to easily adjust when, years from now, he does lose a bit of his edge to age. He has never thrown more than 120 pitches in a game, and despite this has averaged 228 innings the last four years. From 25 to 28, he has pitched 912.1 innings, and his park-adjusted ERA has been 56% better than average. Since integration, two pitchers have done better at the same ages while pitching at least 800 innings: Martinez and Maddux. Roger Clemens’s mark was exactly the same.
The only recent parallel for a pitcher anywhere near this young and this good being traded is Martinez. In 1997, just 25, having won his first Cy Young Award for Montreal and in the last year of his contract, he was even more desirable than Santana is now. The Red Sox ended up having to relinquish Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. for him. At the time, Pavano was Baseball America’s no. 9 prospect. Armas was highly regarded for his great pedigree and a terrific fastball. This isn’t notable just because Pavano was arguably as good a prospect then as Philip Hughes is now; it’s also notable because he actually represents something like the downside of trading a prospect for a truly great pitcher like Martinez or Santana. Pavano may be the punchline to a bad joke, but despite the fact that his greatest achievement as a Yankee was to miss a rehab start with a bruised butt cheek, he’s had a good career. He was the best pitcher on a world champion in 2003.
It’s unlikely that Hughes will do as much, given the reality that young pitchers just get hurt a lot and sometimes mysteriously fail to develop. To invoke another top prospect of a decade ago who suspiciously resembles a top Yankees prospect of today, it’s unlikely that Joba Chamberlain will have a career nearly as good as that of Kerry Wood, whom Montreal could not have had for Martinez. And both Pavano and Wood are considered terrible disappointments.