Improved health, velocity for Blue Jays’ Santos

Frank Gunn/CP

In a year defined by disappointment for the Toronto Blue Jays, Sergio Santos’ progress stands out as a positive development.

The 30-year-old reliever recovered from elbow surgery to become one of the Blue Jays’ top late-inning relievers, reminding observers why general manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for him two years ago.

Santos finished the 2013 season in fine form, allowing one earned run in his last 19 appearances. Most importantly, he feels healthy again after cleaning out some bone spurs and chips from his right pitching elbow early in the season.

“That was my main focus,” Santos said before the final game of the Blue Jays’ season. “I knew I was only going to get two months up here at the end of the season. I wanted to pitch really well and just prove to myself that I can bounce back from these injuries and that I can be effective again.”

His final line for the season: a 1.75 ERA with 28 strikeouts and four walks in 25.2 innings. It’s progress, even if it’s not quite what the Blue Jays hoped for when they traded for him in December of 2011.

Santos, a former Blue Jays shortstop prospect, saved 30 games for the White Sox in 2011, striking out 92 batters in 63 appearances. He appeared in just six games the following year, spending most of the season on the disabled list to recover from shoulder surgery.

Now, after two operations in as many seasons, Santos says he feels great.

“It’s been good,” he said. “I’m just on a momentum swing.”

It appears that the velocity on Santos’ pitches improved as his health did. His average fastball velocity ticked up above 95 mph toward the end of the season and he generated swinging strikes once per six pitches for a career-best 17.7 percent whiff rate. A small sample size? Yes, but the results have been impressive.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are not lamenting the loss of Nestor Molina, the pitcher they sent to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Santos. The right-hander has yet to reach the MLB level, and pitched primarily out of the bullpen in 2013.

Santos will return to the Blue Jays in 2014, earning $3.75 million and presumably pitching in a setup role. That’s the last guaranteed year on a contract that no longer appears to be as team-friendly as it once did. For the Blue Jays to exercise Santos’ $6 million option for 2015, they’ll need to see him dominate for more than two months at a time.

Yet that’s not on Santos’ mind just yet. He’s now going to take a month or so off before starting to prepare for next year by running, working out and playing catch. And every time he goes for a jog or picks up his glove, he’ll have one goal in mind: avoiding the disabled list for six months in 2014.

“That’s it,” he said. “Just build on what I’ve done in the last two months here, and see where it takes me.”

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