Johan Santana: Mets' Savior or Next Frank Viola?

Andrew SmithCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2008

The New York Mets, in desperate need of a front-line starting pitcher, struck a blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Twins for a 29-year old, left-handed, former Cy Young winning All-Star pitcher armed with a devastating changeup, among other pitches.

Think I’m talking about the recent Johan Santana trade of 2008?

Try 19 years earlier.

Just before the trade deadline in 1989 (as in, literally 11:59 on July 31st), the Mets sent Kevin Tapani, David West, and Rick (If-Not-For-Bill-Buckner-I-Would-Have-Been-The-Goat-In-1986) Aguilera to Minnesota for southpaw Frank Viola.

At the time, it was supposed to be a trade that restored the Mets as the National League’s most dominant team, and one that perhaps would take them back to the World Series they had so narrowly missed a year earlier.

Viola was supposedly in his prime as a pitcher. He had great years behind him (a World Series championship in 1987 and a Cy Young in 1988), and most thought that he had even better years in front of him.

In 1990, his first full year with the club, Viola lived up to all the hype and expectation. He started 35 games, boasted a 20-12 record with a 2.67 ERA and recorded three shutouts. He even finished a close third in the Cy Young voting that year.

The next season, he burst out of the gate in the same form, winning 12 of his first 14 decisions and making the All-Star team. But injuries and unpopularity caught up to Viola, and he won just one game the rest of the 1991 season.

As for the prospects the Mets traded to Minnesota, many Mets fans were most disappointed about losing promising young pitcher David West. Starter Rick Aguilera, once heralded as a top young prospect, had disappointed Mets brass with his recent lack of production, and Kevin Tapani was just a young, uninspiring prospect.

West did not pan out, though, going 15-18 and booking at least 100 innings pitched just once in his four-year stay with Minnesota. That’s the good news for the Mets.

Aguilera and Tapani, however, were both with the Twins organization throughout the 90’s, and both contributed significantly in the Twins 1991 World Series championship. Aguilera was recently inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame for his performance as an 11-year closer, and Tapani was a solid innings- eater for Minnesota for several years.

When the Twins wrapped up their victory over the Braves in a dramatic seven-game World Series in 1991, Viola had already pitched his last game with the New York Mets. He was granted free agency that off-season, and he was a mediocre pitcher the rest of his career with Boston, Cincinnati, and Toronto.  

Will the same happen with Santana? Both he and Viola were All-Star, Cy Young pitchers in Minnesota before being traded to the Mets. Both were two of the more dominant lefties in the game at their time, and both were expected to bring the Mets back to the glory days of previous years.

Hopefully for Santana and the Mets, history doesn’t repeat itself and Santana doesn’t underperform as Viola did under the strong responsibility and lofty expectations of Queens.

Of course, the Viola-Santana analogy is not perfect.

Viola had a history of arm trouble due to the screwball-like circle change he was famous for throwing. Santana has zero history of any serious health problems.  

Viola was considered to be among two or three of the top left-handed pitchers in the Major Leagues. Santana is widely considered the best pitcher of the 21st Century.

Viola never went 13-0 in the second-half of a Cy-Young award-winning season like Santana did in 2004 (a baseball record, by the way).

Viola never won two Cy Young awards in just four years as a starter like Santana has.

Viola was never ranked first in baseball in wins, strikeouts, ERA, and opponent batting average over a five year period like Santana is.

And, let's face it, Santana is just so much cooler than Frank Viola.

So take heart, Mets fans. Santana will probably be the best pitcher in the National League for the next year or two. And maybe he will even be among the game’s best pitchers for the next several years.

It could all work out perfectly. As a fellow Mets fan, I hope it does as much as you do.

Santana could pitch six unbelievable years with the Mets, win three Cy Young awards, four World Series championships, and be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 15 years as a New York Met.

But don’t act surprised if Santana doesn’t pan out in New York.

History told you so.