And given the Mets may be operating on an austerity budget this winter -- continuing a youth movement prompted by overspending -- the absence of Santana, or a diminished Santana, threatens to make next season all that more perilous.
"I don't know. I don't really know," Santana said about the timeline for his return during a news conference to discuss what has been diagnosed as a tear of the anterior capsule of his left shoulder, which will require surgery. "This is something that I was told is going to take time. I just have to wait and see. I think the most important thing is to be ready to be 100 percent whether it's April, whether it's May, July, October. Who knows? Time will tell."
Santana, who plans to seek a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, indicated he hopes to begin tossing a baseball in January. He likened the injury and upcoming surgery to the procedure Yankees catcher Jorge Posada required for a comparable issue.
Based on his briefing from doctors, Santana described it as an uncommon injury in baseball, but suggested players generally return at 100 percent. Kelvim Escobar, a fellow Venezuelan and friend of Santana's who shares the same agent, recently underwent the procedure, too.
"This is not a labrum or a rotator cuff. It's something different," Santana said, downplaying the severity.
Next season already figured to be a transition year for the Mets. The organization has roughly $130 million in payroll commitments for next season before bringing in any new players. So 2011 figured to be spent waiting for the contracts of Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and Francisco Rodriguez to expire -- no matter what uniform those players are wearing next season.
A rotation of Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey and Jenrry Mejia is one thing. Subtracting Santana for any length of time -- unless the Mets are going to spend aggressively this winter on the likes of Cliff Lee, which was not the intended plan -- makes next season potentially a lost cause before it begins.
Right-hander Dillon Gee will fill in for the time being in the rotation, but the Mets also must monitor the rookie closely because he's returning this season from a labrum tear that was rehabbed rather than surgically repaired.
It is likely general manager Omar Minaya will be reassigned before any winter roster tinkering begins. On Friday, Minaya was asked how the uncertainty about Santana's 2011 availability affects the team's winter strategy.
"When you don't have a guy like Johan Santana in your rotation, those kind of guys don't come around," Minaya said. "Whether it's through trade or free agency, you have to look at replacing him. Hopefully he'll be back earlier rather than later. ... It's going to be something I did not expect to fill."
Santana did not second-guess the Mets' handling of the situation, even though the wrong injury -- a pectoral strain -- originally was announced.
In his final outing, the left-hander was pulled after the fifth inning in Atlanta, complaining of tightness in the area near his armpit. Santana indicated he wanted to continue, but the coaching staff insisted he be removed as a precaution.
While the Mets announced it was a pectoral muscle strain, pitching coach Dan Warthen mentioned the shoulder, leading to the speculation the Mets were masking something more serious. Yet the fact that Santana was allowed to get on a mound three days later to test the injury at Wrigley Field with a light bullpen session suggests the Mets, too, were caught off-guard by the severity of the injury.
It will mark the third straight year Santana will have surgery near or at the end of a season. He came back fine from the previous procedures, although shoulder surgeries are more grave than his 2008 surgery for torn meniscus cartilage in the knee or last year's cleanout of his left elbow.
"I didn't know the magnitude of the injury that I had," Santana said. "Compared to what I had in the past, it's not even close. Now to get back here and be seen by the doctor and find out it's more than what I thought is surprising."