We like to believe that we grow out of childish fairy tales. That the stories that we clung to when we were small are just that, diversions and ways to pass the time before we're old enough to do things like file for taxes and have long, meaningful discussions about things like "beneficiaries" and "overdrawn bank accounts." But that's not true. We have simply taken those stories and repopulated with 'more realistic' characters.
While we may have given up on our talking mice or glass slippers, we still want a satisfying, hopeful narrative, one that affirms our belief in the goodness of the universe. It's why we cling to underdog stories and why everyone in America was rooting for the Pirates last year after their 20-year streak of futility. And it's why we're rooting for Johan Santana to make a comeback in the Orioles bullpen and/or rotation.
Back in 2000, when we were still thankful that the world hadn't ended from computers blowing up or something, Santana made his debut with the Twins, an unheralded Rule 5 pick with a 6.49 ERA in 86 innings as a 21-year-old. That the Twins put up with him for so long is a testament in itself.
It would take three more years of Santana showing progress, splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation, before the wheels were finally taken off. And all Santana did was go 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, winning a Cy Young along the way.
From 2004-2006, Santana lead the league in strikeouts, ERA+, and WHIP every year. Twice he lead the league in ERA. In 2006, he won a second Cy Young award. It looked like Santana was building a Hall of Fame career for himself.
After being traded to the Mets in exchange for Phil Humber, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra, one of the more lopsided trades of recent memory (even as Humber would throw a perfect game somewhere else, Gomez not maturing until he arrived in Milwaukee), Santana kept it up, leading the league in ERA in his first year with the Mets, going 40-25 with a 2.85 ERA in his first three years.
But then the terrifying truth that resides in the back of a pitcher's head popped up: injury. Santana would miss all of 2011 following shoulder surgery, returning in 2012 showing a reduced fastball averaging 88.4 mph. And sure, he got the no-hitter-that-really-wasn't-but-what-the-hell-he's-earned-it along the way, but following that 134 pitch exhaustion game, Santana would post an 8.27 ERA over his next ten starts before, once again, he needed shoulder surgery.
He would miss all of 2013.
And that brings us up to date. The Santana that the Orioles have signed is trying to come back from two shoulder surgeries, something that, as far as we know, hasn't been done before ($). And of the recent pitchers to have the surgery once, their performances don't offer much soothing.
Since his surgery in 2010, Chien-Ming Wang has posted a 5.55 ERA in 120 innings, his already pedestrian strikeout totals tumbling. Chris Young returned to pitch 115 slightly below average innings with the Mets in 2012, but spent 2013 in AAA, pitching to a 6.81 ERA in 37 innings. Mark Prior and Kelvim Escobar never returned to the majors following their own procedure.
And even Tommy John surgery, which we've begun to assume is an instant cure all for pitchers, doesn't have a great track record after a second procedure. In 2007, it was reported that the success rate of a player coming back from his second Tommy John surgery and returning to pre-surgery levels was 20%. This year, Brian Wilson and Chris Capuano will be those test subjects, trying to buck the trends.
But for Santana, there is no data, there are no other players, there is a 0% success rate for a second shoulder capsular repair. And it doesn't help that when the Orioles signed Santana, scouting reports said he could barely crack 80 mph. Is there anything left?
And that's where the fairy tale comes in. The story we want to tell is of the most successful Rule 5 pick in baseball history returning from two shoulder surgeries, leading the Orioles to a strong season. We want to believe that his fastball will tick up as he gets stronger, that his devastating change-up can compensate for any loss in velocity, that his wits and command and finely sculpted goatee can carve batters up. We look at the outliers, the Jamie Moyers who had an entire career after the age of 35 and think, "Well, maybe Santana can be that." And even though Santana's shoulder injury is usually the death knell for pitchers, we want to believe that medical science offer miracles and that there must be one player who can return and dominate.
While there's a non-zero chance that Santana has something to offer the Orioles, mostly because you can't prove a negative, it's not likely. The money is no issue, the $3 million base salary and $5 million incentives should Santana make 25 starts chump change in the current economy.
But the Orioles are still paying for the dream of a player. And unfortunately, at 35 years old and with two shoulder surgeries under the belt, those dreams don't offer much return, no matter how much we would like them to.