A quick glance at Johan Santana’s Baseball-Refernce page should outline all you need to know about how great of a pitcher he was.
A career 3.20 ERA (136 ERA+) in just a hair over 2,000 innings pitched (2,025.2), Santana won 2 Cy Young Awards while a member of the Minnesota Twins. Joining the Mets in 2008, Santana would go on to win the NL ERA title, finishing the year with a career-best 2.53 mark, proving he could get it done regardless of leagues.
Suffice to say, the left-hander who wowed hitters with an excellent circle change-up, was simply phenomenal.
However, injuries cut what could’ve been a hall of fame career drastically short, as Santana would never pitch again after the 2012 season, ultimately prematurely ending his career.
Regardless of what transpired, at his best, Santana was among, if not the best pitcher in the sport for a period of time. Between 2004-2008, Santana ranks 2nd to Roger Clemens in ERA+ (157, 162) among pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched, though Santana threw 508 2⁄3 more innings than Clemens over that span.
From 2002-10, Santana ranked 2nd in WAR (50.5), trailing only the late Roy Halladay (53.7), 1st in ERA (2.90) and ERA+ (150), 1st in strikeouts (1,785), and 10th in innings pitched (1,779.0).
A story that tends to get lost when discussing the lore of Santana is how it all began for him at the professional level.
Discovered by then-Astros scout Andres Reiner in 1994, Santana, originally a center fielder, was soon converted to a pitcher and signed with Houston on July 2, 1995, then just 18-years old. Santana would prove less-than-stellar in parts of three seasons in the Astros’ system, never pitching to an ERA lower than 4.66.
After the 1999 season, the Astros’ left Santana unprotected in advance of the Rule 5 Draft - which aims to prevent teams from stockpiling too many young players on their minor league affiliate teams when other teams would be willing to have them play in the majors - this, per MLB’s official draft rules.
Notable players selected via the Rule 5 Draft include Shane Victorino, Josh Hamilton, Dan Uggla, and of course, Santana.
Entering that year’s Rule 5, the Minnesota Twins, who had the first pick in that draft, had fallen on hard times, not having a winning season since 1992, finishing at or near the bottom of the standings in their division.
As for the team with the second pick that year—the Florida Marlins—had a bit of a different narrative. Winning the World Series only two years earlier, owner Wayne Huizenga orchestrated a mammoth fire sale following the team’s first of two championships. The 1998 team lost a franchise-worst 108 games, 1999 only bore mild improvement, as the team finished 64-98, still last in the NL East.
In a prearranged deal with the Twins, the Marlins would draft Santana and trade him for fellow minor league pitcher Jared Camp and $50,000, a cash amount which would cover the Twins’ pick.
When first executed on December 13, 1999, no one would’ve thought much of this trade. Both pitchers had experienced their share of struggles in the minors.
Now, in retrospect, Camp for Santana rests as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
Despite some early positive feedback from then-Marlins manager John Boles, Camp would fail to make the team’s opening day roster, ultimately being shipped back to the Indians organization that left him unprotected in advance of the draft. Camp retired in 2003, having never pitched an inning above AAA.
As for Santana, the first two years in Minnesota bore little success, posting a 5.90 ERA and 1.71 WHIP over 129 2⁄3 innings. But then, the left-hander found his groove: two Cy Youngs including five Top 5 finishes, and three ERA titles. Oh, what could’ve been in Miami.
In his 8 seasons with the club, the Twins won the AL Central four times, thanks in large part to the starting pitching of Santana, and the added nucleus of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau.