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Is Johan Santana worth the risk?

1/26/2010

When a top-10 fantasy starting pitcher coming off the second elbow surgery of his career is slated to throw from a mound for the first time this winter, it should be pretty big news, especially in New York. However, I'm not so sure this means too much in the fantasy baseball world. This is the latest on Johan Santana from today's Newark Star-Ledger:

    "With 23 days remaining until pitchers and catchers report and the Mets' roster still a work in progress, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, GM Omar Minaya, assistant GMs John Ricco and Wayne Krivsky and manager Jerry Manuel huddled Monday at the team's Port St. Lucie, Fla., complex for Day One of a three-day voluntary players minicamp. The highlight of the camp will be the return of Santana, who is set to throw off a mound Tuesday, hoping his left elbow has recovered from surgery to remove bone chips Sept. 1."

Obviously this is a big deal for the Mets, coming off a brutal season and looking to sell tickets. This is arguably their most important player recovering so he can not only make his Opening Day start, but also contribute 33 or 34 more this season and vie for his third Cy Young award. Santana says, "Time will tell, but I am feeling good." Awesome. But that's what it's going to take for fantasy owners to ultimately make up their minds -- time, lots of time. And I don't think we'll truly know whether Santana is going to make it back to ace status until well into the season, which is well after you need to make your definitive choice on whether to draft or ignore him.

Of course, that hasn't stopped me from ranking Santana among my top-10 starters for this season, which in a way goes against conventional thinking, including mine. I admit, if this guy's name wasn't Johan Santana, he wouldn't be near my top 50 overall. I tend to let others deal with players recovering from injuries. Plus, some of Santana's numbers show a pitcher in decline, notably his strikeout rate, which hasn't been so special since leaving the American League. So we have risk of injury, a troubling statistical trend, a team that doesn't figure to score a ton of runs, and I've still ranked him better than Dan Haren, Justin Verlander and all but five starting pitchers. Santana is sixth in my rankings.

Sometimes fantasy owners need to go with their gut and trust the situation. We make many decisions when analyzing players from sport to sport, but there are times I choose to not so much overlook evidence, but downplay it. Santana isn't a top-10 overall player to me, but I certainly think the risk is worth the reward as a top-10 pitcher. It's now January, but chances are good I'll be writing the same thing in two months, maybe four. Certainly there isn't going to be any negative news coming from Santana's throwing sessions in January, no matter how many team executives are watching. In February, we'll continue to hear how well that prized left arm is feeling, and in spring training you can bet Santana will be treated very cautiously, with optimum pitching conditions against weak lineups and with low pitch counts. We're not going to know for sure how this plays out for months. The Mets are under no obligation to share bad news, if there is any, so all we'll have -- Mets fans and fantasy owners alike -- is speculation. Mine will be positive.

In the case of Carlos Beltran, judging by the nature of his repeat knee injury and how the Mets have reacted, trading for someone else's financial mistake (Gary Matthews Jr.) in what seems like a desperation move to fill center field, I'm pessimistic. With Santana, I'm hopeful. The Mets had a need for starting pitching without worrying about their ace. They haven't filled it. I think that's rather short-sighted, but it's not like signing Jon Garland will appease everyone, either. Plus, Santana is two years removed from being one of fantasy's most impactful players.

Look for one positive quote after another in the New York papers and blogs Wednesday, but remember, it doesn't mean much. The plight of Santana's 2010 season is months from being decided. I've chosen to trust the fellow who has been fantasy's top starting pitcher for more than five seasons. Will you?

Have more questions? Check out Eric's fantasy sports chat session Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET at this link.