Wilner on Blue Jays: Santos ready to go

Santos hadn’t pitched for two weeks before Saturday, his last outing having been against the Phillies on March 3.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Another strongish start for J.A. Happ fuelled more of the fire out in the Twitter and blogospheres that the lefty should make the Blue Jays’ starting rotation ahead of Ricky Romero, but Happ getting 11 outs while allowing two runs on four doubles and striking out six without a walk was less important to the 2013 Blue Jays’ cause than were the nine pitches thrown by Sergio Santos in the fifth inning.

Santos hadn’t pitched for two weeks, his last outing having been against the Phillies on March 3. That afternoon, he pitched one inning and gave up a run on a couple of hits and a walk, striking out a pair, and afterwards felt some soreness in his right triceps muscle.

Once the pain was reported, Santos was shut down and sent for an MRI, which came back clean. He started to work his way back into Grapefruit action with an inning in a minor-league game earlier in the week, and then went out and retired all three Orioles he faced on Saturday afternoon, getting a ground ball, a foul pop-up and a lazy fly ball to centre.

After the game, Santos proclaimed himself 100 per cent ready to go, and assured all concerned that he would be able to answer the bell for the season opener on April 2.

With two weeks remaining in the spring, there are a couple of mileposts Santos would like to hit, including pitching on back-to-back days (which he expects to happen in the coming week), and pitching in pieces of two innings, if not throwing two complete frames. Santos expects both of those things to take place without incident.

The good health of Santos is especially paramount for a Blue Jays team that is likely to leave Florida without its closer. Casey Janssen’s recovery from off-season shoulder surgery has not been as smooth as everyone would have liked, with a setback earlier this month pushing him off the timeline that would have seen him have his first game action this week.

Janssen did throw live batting practice earlier in the week, and reported no problems at all, but he’s still a few days away from getting into the controlled environment of a minor-league game, and isn’t likely to see much, if any, Grapefruit League action so that the Blue Jays can backdate a stint on the disabled list as far as possible in order to have him be available as early as they can in the regular season.

Janssen shouldn’t miss much time once the bell rings — likely no more than ten days to a couple of weeks — and Santos will have to pick up the late-inning slack until he returns. As will Darren Oliver, Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers and likely Aaron Loup.

During his pre-game chat with the media, manager John Gibbons once again mentioned that there was only one spot — for a long reliever — open in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, assuming good health for Janssen. With Janssen, Santos, Oliver, Delabar and Rogers seen as locks, that means there’s one more reliever who has all but assured himself a spot on the big club, and the smart money is on Loup.

The unflappable lefty had another strong outing in the loss to Baltimore, giving up a ground single to the leadoff man, then striking out a pair and getting a ground ball to end the inning. He’s had a very impressive spring, having allowed five hits in seven innings while striking out seven without a walk. The only run he’s allowed was a solo homer to Domonic Brown back on March 3.

Loup’s impressive spring comes on the heels of a tremendous rookie showing with the Blue Jays last season, in which he posted a WHIP of 0.913 in 33 outings, didn’t allow a home run and only walked two batters in 30 2/3 innings. Looking for a LOOGY? Left-handed batters hit a disgusting .207/.220/.241 against him last season.

With Loup’s spot seemingly secure, that leaves the long-man role for one of Happ (they keep mentioning him there, but he’s starting the season in Buffalo so he can stay stretched out in the event the Blue Jays need a starter), Brad Lincoln and the out-of-option duo of Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress.

Lincoln’s recent tender shoulder would seem to have put him out of the running, so that leaves Cecil and Jeffress. Jeffress didn’t do himself any favours on Saturday by giving up a double and two walks and having to be removed from his outing with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Still, Jeffress has really opened some eyes this spring with his electric stuff, and his is an arm the Blue Jays really don’t want to expose to waivers.

The likeliest scenario is that both Cecil and Jeffress come north with the big club, with Janssen starting the year on the disabled list. It will be far easier to sneak one of them through waivers a week into the season, once teams’ rosters are mostly set.

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