How Much Longer Can Johan Santana Remain a Top-of-the-Rotation Starter?

Jason Lempert@MetsPride84Correspondent IJanuary 6, 2013

Johan Santana joined the Mets following the 2007 season after several great years in Minnesota.
Johan Santana joined the Mets following the 2007 season after several great years in Minnesota.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

What makes someone a top-of-the-rotation starter? Well, there are a number of factors. Of course, a pitcher's "stuff" is key—how fast his fastball is, how hard his slider is, etc.

Experience is always a component of a front-line starter as well. But the X-factor might be one's tenacity and intimidation on the mound. These traits and much more have made Johan Santana into an ace pitcher ever since 2003.

Santana, originally signed by the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent in 1995, wound up in the Minnesota Twins' organization in 1999. As a 21-year-old, he debuted with the Twins a year later in what would be the start of a brilliant career.

The left-hander became a full-time member of the Twins' starting five in 2002, making 14 of his 16 appearances as a starter that year. Just two seasons later, he won his first Cy Young Award, leading the league with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts. He won his second award in 2006, as Santana and his wicked change-up were baffling hitters all over the American League.

Prior to the 2008 season, with his contract ready to expire at the end of the year, the Twins sent Santana to the New York Mets in exchange for a prospect package, including Carlos Gomez and Philip Humber—the Mets also inked Santana to a hefty six-year, $137.5 million contract extension.

And while Santana had a brilliant '08 campaign (league-leading and career-best 2.53 ERA), his stats and his durability have been diminishing every year since the trade.

He missed the entire 2011 season, recovering from left shoulder surgery. Originally, the team expected him to be ready by Opening Day 2011, but setback after setback caused him to not only miss Opening Day but the whole season.

He came back strong, however, in 2012, and etched himself into Mets' lore by tossing the first no-hitter in the history of the franchise. But the 134-pitch performance may have taken its toll.

After that June 1 outing, Santana's effectiveness tailed off, and he was shut down in the middle of August for the remainder of the season. So, the question all Mets fans are likely asking themselves is, how much longer can Santana be relied upon to carry this rotation? The answer is not much.

Santana is heading into this season at age 34. When you think of pitchers who were still considered top-of-the-rotation starters heading into their mid-to-late 30's, guys like Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens come to mind.

The common thread with these men was their ability to either stay healthy, or rebound from an injury and return to form. So far, Santana has not shown these traits as a member of the Mets' club.

Injuries have no doubt taken their toll on the Mets' ace. The left-hander has finished every season he has been with the Mets, injured.

He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee following the '08 season. In 2009, he was shut down in August and underwent a procedure to remove bone chips from his left elbow. Of course, he had the surgery to repair his torn left anterior capsule in 2010. And his season ended prematurely in 2012.

The 2013 season could very well be a make-or-break year for the southpaw. The Mets hold a $25 million option for 2014 with a $5.5 million buyout, and there has been the on-and-off rumor of the team (unsuccessfully) trying to deal its ace (Santana does hold a full no-trade clause).

Keep in mind, however, that Santana is a bulldog and a competitor. He has the mentality to persevere through these challenges and could string together another few quality seasons—something the Mets and their fans would be elated to see.