If you're ever in the market for a textbook definition of an up and down year, it would be hard to come up with one that's a better fit than the one Johan Santana has lived through this year.
The year started with a huge up when Santana started on Opening Day for the Mets after more than a year away from the team because of serious shoulder surgery. Just pitching was remarkable enough, but Santana did much more than just pitch.
He thrived, looking close enough to the old Santana to help fuel thoughts of a Mets season going somewhere other than the closest dumpster for the first time in a long time. There were nights with 11 strikeouts, shutouts and, finally, the first no-hitter in Mets history.
If you stopped the story right there, it is one of the better comebacks in baseball history. Alas, stories don't always have happy endings and Santana's season went off the rails.
He has a 7.79 ERA since that no-hitter and spent a spell on the disabled list with a sprained ankle that seems to have left him with absolutely nothing in the tank. He's given up 14 runs in 6.1 innings over his last two starts, results that can be easily duplicated by reaching into the minors for just about any pitcher in the entire system.
The no-hitter has become bittersweet in hindsight because of attempts to link the 134 pitches Santana threw on that magical night with his subsequent struggles. Perhaps it did, but it bears mentioning that Santana threw that game in his first June start and he finished the month with an ERA of 2.76, up only slightly from the 2.36 mark he had after the no-hitter.
That ERA is now 4.85 and Santana needs an MRI on his back because of stiffness. The team will wait for the results of that before deciding whether he'll make his next start on Thursday, a start that would come with a strict pitch count because Santana is apparently getting knocked out of games in early innings because he's overly worried about how many pitches he's being asked to throw.
That's not actually why the pitch count would be put into place, of course, but it shouldn't matter anyway. Regardless of the MRI, the Mets should be shutting down Santana right now.
Things are getting worse for Santana on the mound and there's absolutely no reason to take even a tiny risk of injury at this point in another lost season. Santana's only focus should be on getting ready for 2013 because the Mets desperately need him to be as close to full strength as humanly possible.
Sandy Alderson hasn't said what next year's budget for payroll will be, but the Mets aren't going to have a whole lot of wiggle room unless it is much higher than any projection we've seen to this point. They are already on the hook for $72 million (assuming the team picks up the options for both David Wright and R.A. Dickey) for just six players, including Jason Bay who only technically counts as a player at this point in time.
The team spent $94 million on their payroll this season and a repeat wouldn't leave room for much in the way of serious upgrades around the roster unless Alderson gets really creative. That said, there's a chance that the rotation could be pretty good if Santana can find himself one more time and join Dickey, Matt Harvey, Jon Niese and, at some point, Zack Wheeler.
That's the easiest route to contention next year, but it is heavily contingent on getting something close to the Santana of the first half over the course of the entire season. There simply isn't any reasonable argument to make that having him pitch out the string on 85 pitches per start will make that more likely to happen.
Santana didn't quit while he was ahead this season. The Mets should make sure that he makes a different choice now that he's way behind.