Johan Santana's Injury Proves Danger of Signing Veteran Pitchers to Huge Deals

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2013

PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Johan Santana #57 of the New York Mets poses for a photograph during spring training media photo day at Tradition Field on February 21, 2013 in Port St. Lucie, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

In the span of one week, two pitchers over the age of 30 saw their careers head in different directions, and it said a lot about the risks that come with signing veteran pitchers to huge contracts.

On one hand came the news that Justin Verlander, 30, signed a seven-year, $180 million contract extension with the Detroit Tigers (with a vesting eighth year that could take the total worth of the deal to $202 million), making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history.

On the other, it was announced that New York Mets ace Johan Santana would undergo season-ending surgery for a torn anterior capsule, the second time he'll require the surgery in his career.

The 34-year-old was in the midst of a six-year, $137.5 million contract he signed in 2008, with the Mets still on the hook for $31 million even if they buy out his contract in 2014.

The two situations are more similar than you might think.

Santana's contract was the highest for a pitcher in baseball history when he signed it. He was 28 (and a month away from turning 29). Like Verlander, he was the top pitcher in the game and a two-time Cy Young Award winner (Verlander has only won one Cy Young, but he gets credit for being 2011's American League MVP).

But Santana never lived up to that contract. He was excellent in 2008, yes, but injuries limited him over the next two seasons and eventually cost him the entire 2011 campaign. Suddenly, Santana had gone from being the ace the Mets desperately needed to a financial burden they couldn't afford.

It makes you wonder if the Tigers will someday regret signing Verlander to such a huge contract as well.

Of all the pitchers to cut huge, lengthy deals in recent memory—Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez come to mind—Verlander is the oldest, and only Hernandez (four years his junior) has thrown more innings over the past four years.

Now, it is possible that Verlander won't suffer the same fate as Santana and will continue to be a horse for the next five years. He's only gotten better with age, after all.

But it does make you wonder when teams determine a pitcher has passed the point of earning a massive contract. Clearly, the Tigers weren't afraid to lock Verlander up for another seven years after he turned 30, though I wonder how Verlander will age as his velocity starts to decrease.

My first thought when I heard the contract Verlander had signed was, "Whoa, the Tigers are taking a huge risk." I would guess Verlander will maintain his current level of success for at least three more seasons, but what about after that?

You don't even need to look at Santana to see the risk. What about 35-year-old Roy Halladay, who struggled through injuries last year and has looked very poor this spring? For years, Halladay was a horse, but his 200-inning seasons are over and his velocity has dipped.

I don't begrudge Verlander his huge deal—he earned it—but Santana is proof of the risks that accompany huge deals given to veteran pitchers. And if nothing else, Halladay could be a glimpse at Verlander's future. 

If I were a general manager, I would be wary of signing an elite pitcher to a huge contract that would take him past the age of 35. Perhaps Verlander will prove that line of thinking wrong. Or perhaps Santana is simply the perfect example to illustrate just how risky an investment on veteran pitchers can be.


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