ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Barring setbacks, Sergio Santos could be ready to rejoin the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen around July 12 on the early end of the spectrum, or just after the all-star break July 19 if things go a bit longer than planned.
Either way, the right-hander acquired two winters ago to serve as closer should be back soon, and John Gibbons will need to figure out where exactly the flame-thrower fits into a relief group that’s become dominant as its members have settled into defined roles.
“I don’t know,” the manager replied Tuesday when asked how he envisions using Santos. “Until he gets back, you don’t know what happens between now and then, you know? Injuries happen, guys get banged up, trades, who knows?
“We like him, he was pitching very well, but he’s been banged up the last couple years, so we’ve got to make sure he’s good and ready. So much can happen between now and then.”
While the Blue Jays have learned that the hard way with all the injury hits they've taken the past two years, the caution with Santos is also somewhat understandable given that over the past two seasons, he's worked only 9.1 innings over 11 games.
Since his acquisition from the Chicago White Sox on Dec. 6, 2011 for pitching prospect Nestor Molina, he the same number of surgeries, two, as saves.
"That's the most frustrating thing," said Santos. "I want to come in here and show guys, 'Hey, this is what I bring to the table.' I want them to have confidence in what I do and not being able to show that so far in a year and a half is pretty frustrating.
"But it's a part of sports, it's a part of life and the way I see it and the way I'm taking it is that if I can deal with those two back to back injuries, I'm sure I can deal with a couple of back to back outings that are tough, or whatever the case is. I'm using that as stuff to build on because if not I'd go crazy."
That resilience may come in handy, too, if he needs to earn his way back into the late-inning role he had during a breakout 2011 with the White Sox, when he saved 30 games, had a strikeouts per nine of 13.1 and a WHIP of 1.105.
Since he started the season as the second option behind Casey Janssen to close games, Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil have emerged into the prime set-up men leading to the ninth, with Darren Oliver as the bridge guy before them.
Neil Wagner has emerged into a mid-game weapon, although with his lack of track record that's no guarantee to last, while Aaron Loup, Dustin McGowan and Juan Perez have filled in spots as needed.
One would think Santos, 29, would at minimum slot into Wagner's role, and if finally healthy, rapidly move up into a more prominent spot.
Right now the health part is taking care of itself, as Santos threw his third bullpen session Tuesday since his May elbow surgery, and he's slated to face hitters for the first time Friday. The tentative plan is for him pitch for single-A Dunedin on July 1, 4 and 7 and then head to triple-A Buffalo for a couple of back-to-back outings before activation.
So far, he's feeling so good that he's had to slow himself down to avoid doing too much too quickly.
"I'm at the point where I was in spring training with the shoulder issue (surgically repaired last year), when I'm throwing, I'm back to not thinking about any kind of injury or holding back at all. I'm just back to playing catch and throwing. … "I've been letting it go, and it just feels great."
Helping on that front is his recent adoption of the weighted ball program introduced to the Blue Jays by Steve Delabar last year and finding converts all over the team. Janssen, Cecil and McGowan are also on the plan which aims to reduce injury by strengthening the shoulder muscles responsible for deceleration, and the Blue Jays recently hired Jamie Evans, one of the workout's founders, as a consultant.
While the program has helped some pitchers increase velocity, Santos just wants to stay healthy.
"I've been doing it for about 10 or 11 days now," he said. "The way I look at it, it can't possibly hurt, it can only help so why not give it a shot. I'm looking for anything and everything just to stay on the field. So, I'll pretty much do anything.
"When I talked to Jamie Evans it was basically I'll take more velocity, but that's not where my issue is. I just want to be able to recover and bounce back and have all that like I used to and so we made a program for that."
Should Santos find similar success with the weighted balls, a deep bullpen will only get stronger. Heading into Tuesday's play, Blue Jays relievers had allowed only six earned runs over 66.1 innings of work.
"Amazing, absolutely amazing, I'm so proud of all those guys," said Santos. "They're doing such a heck of a job. It feels good to do that, and I know they've raised the bar a little bit, so when I come back I've got to do my work."
And just how well he does will determine where he fits into the puzzle.