The Santana Dilemma

If Hank Steinbrenner is to be believed, the Yankees are out of the Johan Santana sweepstakes. And if reports of the package the Twins proposed are to be believed, the best pitcher in baseball could have been had for little more than Philip Hughes, Melky Cabrera and a pair of secondary prospects.

But according to numerous reports, the reason the deal didn’t happen had far less to do with the package of players involved than it did with money—Santana, who is a free agent after the 2008 season, would need to be signed to a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of six years, $150 million.

It’s not too late, and the Yankees may rally as they did in the Alex Rodriguez sweepstakes some weeks back, which cast a dubious light on Hank’s grasp of the words “deadline” and “out.” But if the Yankees let either factor keep them from Johan Santana, the more than $400 million in total salary commitments they’ve signed on for since the season ended were little more than jogging in place.

“The deadline is the deadline,” Steinbrenner told the New York Times on Dec. 4. “I extended it a few hours more, and that was it. So it’s done.”

And the Daily News reported that the final deal the Yankees turned down included Hughes, Cabrera, a AA pitcher in Jeff Marquez with a mediocre strikeout rate, and a A-level singles hitter in Mitch Hilligoss.

While Hughes would be a real loss, his spot in the rotation would be filled by the best pitcher in baseball. It is unclear just whether Melky Cabrera will be a star. And neither Marquez or Hilligoss are guaranteed to be much of anything.

The worst part of the non-deal is that the favorites to nab Santana are the Boston Red Sox. And the Yankees, by dropping out of the bidding publicly, have given Minnesota less leverage to extract talent from New York’s primary competition for the AL East.

Perhaps Hank believes that, as with A-Rod, any player or team is bound to come begging to the New York Yankees eventually. Or maybe the Yankees, having spent to retain Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, are finally at the bottom of their Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of money.

But Santana is the finest pitcher to become available in many years. Through revenue sharing, a larger percentage of teams are able to lock up their top players to long-term contracts. The top pitchers simply don’t hit the free agent market—they are either traded or signed.

Once before in recent years, the Yankees walked away from a free agent who was in his prime: Carlos Beltran. The Yankees elected not to beat the Mets’ offer, even reportedly turning down an overture from his agent, Scott Boras, to play for slightly less money. They stayed with the aged Bernie Williams in center, and while Beltran has flourished in Queens, the Yankees have enjoyed a fraction of his production and defense in center ever since.

Minnesota has to trade Santana. The team cannot afford to sign him (or, at least, is unwilling to do so), and they do not want to lose the best pitcher in baseball for nothing more than compensatory draft picks.

But if the Yankees aren’t willing to pay for Santana, another team will. New York will be reliant on talented but aging hitters, a starting rotation hugely full of promise but short on track record, and a bullpen that currently consists of Mariano Rivera, talented but unproven commodities like recently acquired Jonathan Albaladejo, and yes, Kyle Farnsworth.

(“I think he’s here to stay,” Cashman said of Farnsworth December 3. “I doubt we’re going to move him, because we’re going to need him.”)

Chien-Ming Wang in a Game 1. Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth inning. And Johan Santana on the Red Sox. It’s hard to believe the Yankees are letting this happen.

The Santana Dilemma