He’s a two time Cy Young Award winner. He’s a 4 time All Star. He’s a 2006 pitching triple crown winner. He’s thrown a no-hitter (2012). He’s collected a career record of 139-78. And, he hasn’t thrown a pitch at the major league level since 2012. Of all the competition he’s faced, Johan Santana is now up against the one obstacle that seems to be his nemesis: his body. Signed to a minor league deal, Santana is 35 years old and attempting to mount a comeback from a wonky shoulder and a list of injuries almost as long as his left arm.
Santana’s left shoulder has suffered its share of trauma. In 2010, he required surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule that cost him the entire 2011 season. He’s also had back issues. Then, early in 2013, a 2nd surgery was required to repair his anterior capsule…again. He missed all of 2013. In 2014, the Orioles thought about taking a chance on Santana. In June, he tore his Achilles tendon. It seemed that the odds were not in his favour.
Now, at almost 36, Santana is hoping to catch on with the Blue Jays. The thing is, he’s not even ready to pitch. As Ken Fidlin of The Toronto Sun tells us Santana is just throwing 25 balls at a time. And, not from a mound. He’s throwing from 25 feet for half of those and 60 for the other half. He does that for two days and then rests for one. This is hardly the routine of a guy who is in the running for a starting job to start the season. Instead, it is the routine of a guy who is fighting to gain control of his body in the hopes of contributing later.
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That just may be the realistic expectation for Santana. With the pitching situation in Toronto being what it is, there may not be much room for Santana to contribute just yet. But, as we know, the scenery can change in the blink of an eye, or in the time it takes a pitcher to be called off a bunt.
The injury to Marcus Stroman has opened up two starting rotation jobs when there was one before. Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez will slide in there barring some miraculous trade for Cole Hamels. (Readers should not expect that to actually happen). Because of this there are arms being considered for bullpen roles that may not have been previously. We’re hearing that Miguel Castro could be on the big league roster as a reliever as early as Opening Day. Assuming that GM, Alex Anthopoulos read Michael Wray’s take on this and keeps Castro in the minor leagues as a starter, there is room for more additions. And, right now, the Blue Jays have positioned themselves with many other options available for the handful of bullpen jobs that could become available.
So, what happens when Santana is ready? Well, we should not expect him to be the Cy Young candidate of old. Those days are over. In fact, some pointed to his performance in Venezuela this past winter as a sign that he may not even be able to perform at the big league level. There he threw in just one game and his velocity was down. But, as Santana points out (in the Fidlin piece), that was not about performing. It was a test to see if he still has the desire to compete. Turns out, he does.
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So, when he is ready, we’ll see a pitcher who may hit 90 mph if he’s lucky. But, more importantly, we’ll see a pitcher who knows how to pitch. We’ll see the experience that two Cy Youngs, 4 All Star seasons and 5 seasons of 200+ strike outs brings. The art of pitching is not only about velocity. We need look only to Mark Buehrle for proof of that. Instead, pitching is about thinking and mixing and timing. These are lessons that Santana is ready to bring.
"“Up here, I know how to do it,” he said, pointing at his brain. “That’s what I’m excited about. Physically I have to make some adjustments. That’s what this game is all about, making adjustments, whether you’re a pitcher or a hitter. You can make an adjustment from pitch to pitch, from game to game, from season to season, from age 25 to age 35. If you’re open to learn and understand what it’s going to take, I don’t think you should have a problem making the transition.”"
So, he’ll go through the paces of returning to a roster that could potentially have opportunity for a guy who can make adjustments and get hitters out. The Blue Jays do not need a #1 starter to fill in their rotation. They are not desperate. That is why Johan Santana may just be the guy to help this club out. As things stand right now, this club needs depth. IF Santana can plug into a spot start here or there, or be healthy enough to be a 5th starter, the Blue Jays will be better for it.
It is important to remember that the pitching situation in Toronto is not in an emergency state. So, there are very few eggs in Santana’s basket. He’ll be free to get himself ready over the next month or so. When he’s ready, the Blue Jays will have an interesting choice to make. His pedigree and experience will be a welcome presence as this team looks to make a push in 2015.