TORONTO – Let’s take Alex Anthopoulos at face value and trust that Sergio Santos was designated for assignment with the intention of getting him right at triple-A Buffalo for an eventual return to the Toronto Blue Jays.
It makes sense, as the oft-injured right-hander has in the past been an elite reliever and a return to form would be a boon to the bullpen of manager John Gibbons. That’s clearly the best-case scenario.
But, maybe, just maybe, the move was also partly a club attempt at some pre-trade-deadline creativity, aimed at trying to free up the roughly $1.3 million remaining on the $3.75 million Santos is due this season by having another team claim him on waivers (the $750,000 buyout on his $6 million option for 2015 would also be off the 2014 books).
That money wouldn’t necessarily go very far, but perhaps combined with another salary-shedding move it would give Anthopoulos some real flexibility as July 31 approaches.
Will it happen?
The odds seem against it given that Santos’s walks per nine rate so far is 7.8, his ERA is 7.78, and his WHIP is 2.085. Although when you consider that the Los Angeles Angels parted with a couple of their top prospects to acquire closer Huston Street from the San Diego Padres, a pricey roll of the dice on Santos can be justified.
The Blue Jays, however, sound like they’re expecting Santos to clear waivers.
"I would say, clearly when you have salary attached to you that can certainly impact the probability of being claimed," said Anthopoulos. "Beyond that, with chances, things like that, I don't know that I can really talk about that. After Wednesday comes and goes, I’ll be free to talk about that stuff."
Santos is on waivers now and will remain there until Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.
If he clears he’ll be assigned to Buffalo and become a special project for pitching coach Randy St. Claire. The Blue Jays have had some past success with such an approach, as Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind both rebuilt themselves, though Ricky Romero remained stuck in his funk.
Having lost Gibbons’ trust, Santos has been used sparingly of late – he’s made just three appearances in July – and isn’t getting the reps he needs to work through his fastball command troubles.
"The way to get things worked out is to go throw some innings," said Anthopoulos. "We told him hopefully this is an Encarnacion scenario, go down there, throw a lot, he'll be a priority guy, get back on track and be that dominant reliever we know he can be that we saw at the end of last year, that we saw at the beginning of the year before the rough trip with the Twins.
"The ability is there, you can't get better if you don't pitch and understandably so, it's tough with some of the issues he's had, to get him some steady work."
Regardless, it’s a remarkable fall for a pitcher acquired from the Chicago White Sox after the 2011 season for then pitching prospect Nestor Molina, who has a 4.79 ERA in 28 games with double-A Birmingham this year.
Santos, coming off a 30-save, 13.1-strikeouts-per-nine campaign, was expected to solidify the Blue Jays’ closer spot for years to come. Instead, he’s appeared in only 59 games over the past 2½ seasons and has spent significant portions of each season on the DL.
He hit the DL with elbow soreness back in May, shortly after losing the closer’s jobs following three blown saves in four chances, including a stunning three-walk mess April 17 at Minnesota.
Is he fully healthy?
"Yeah, no doubt about it," said Anthopoulos. "Sergio is a strikeout guy. He's going to walk some guys. Even when he's had his good years, even the year he saved 30 games, his walk totals were somewhat high. Certainly not that high that it's a problem for him, they're just higher this past year. It's a combination of things.
"The tough thing about being a reliever, the samples are so small, the appearances, you have a few bad outings, you're trying to get your ERA down, you have that outing you give up four or five runs, it takes seven or eight scoreless innings to get it back. Guys press. I don't know that he has been doing that, he's competitive, he wants to have success, he wants to do well, he just needs to get into games and get consistent work."
The Blue Jays will be looking for Santos to quickly regain his fastball command for a quick return to the big-leagues. And if they lose him on waivers, well that might work to their benefit, too.