Among the items on Alex Anthopoulos’s to-do list on this breezy, coolish Monday morning was catching a glimpse of Colby Rasmus’s reworked, quieter swing during an eye-popping session of batting practice, and seeking out reliever Casey Janssen for a chat.
Anthopoulos’s message to Janssen was going to be simple: don’t push yourself; watch your bullpen sessions; there’s plenty of time to get ready for April; and if you need a day here or there during spring training, well, don’t be afraid to take it.
What is it Mariano Rivera says, Anthopoulos asked? That he needs four innings in the Grapefruit League to be good to go during the regular season? That’s all?
Not that Anthopoulos was comparing Janssen to Rivera. But the Toronto Blue Jays’ general manager was making it clear that Janssen will be treated this spring like a rehabilitating incumbent closer, and if nothing else it was a subtle reminder that for all the balloons and streamers surrounding the first few days of spring training, the Blue Jays are monitoring the status of some key contributors.
(Starting pitcher Ricky Romero revealed that he had had a blood-platelet procedure for tendinitis in his knees, and manager John Gibbons suggested off the cuff that knee pain might be an issue for Romero.)
Anthopoulos is extending Janssen a courtesy that he cannot extend to the man who was supposed to be the Blue Jays’ closer, Sergio Santos.
Janssen became the closer by default last season when Francisco Cordero crumbled after early-season shoulder issues shut down Santos, eventually necessitating surgery. Janssen filled the void masterfully, converting 22 of 25 save opportunities, including 15 consecutively.
But Janssen, too, needed surgery to alleviate discomfort in the acromioclavicular joint of his right shoulder and he is now behind Santos in terms of availability out of the gate. Janssen won’t appear in Grapefruit League games until the second week of March. Santos is throwing free and easy.
The Blue Jays acquired Santos at the winter meetings in 2011, then kept him away from prying eyes during spring training by sending him to minor-league camp to work on a changeup. That raised suspicions that some saw as being justified when he finally was shut down for the season, but Santos said Monday that he really was working on a changeup, a pitch he’d thrown at times with the Chicago White Sox, but that catcher A.J. Pierzynski seemed reluctant to call.
“No, no, no, I really was working on a changeup,” Santos said. “I didn’t foresee anything breaking down. There was some discomfort, but I thought I could get through it. After that game in Kansas City [April 20], though, it was pretty clear that wasn’t going to be the case. It would have been too hard to fight through it for another four months, so I tried rehabilitating it, and then we all made a decision to just have a kind of general clean-out.”
Given a do-over, Santos said he probably wouldn’t have tried to pitch through spring training, and if anything it only reinforced in both his and the Blue Jays’ minds that even at 29 he is still a work in progress. A converted shortstop who is in his second stint with the Blue Jays, the White Sox turned Santos into a reliever in 2009, and after just 28 2/3 minor-league innings, he was pitching in the majors in 2010, saving 30 games in 2011 with 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
He has survived on power stuff (fastball and slider), but he wants to refine a changeup that had switch hitters Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis nodding their heads in admiration during Santos’s first bullpen session on Sunday.
“I get some movement on it,” Santos said. “It can get me some ground-ball outs against lefties.”
Consistency of command is, of course, a necessary caveat. But if Santos stays healthy, and forkball-tossing Steve Delabar (12.55 strikeouts per nine innings pitched with the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners in 2012, the most of any American League pitcher with a minimum 60 innings) can continue to write his rags-to-riches story, Gibbons won’t have to wait until the ninth inning to get a strikeout.
And if Janssen, who lost the 2008 season to surgery on his right labrum, can’t close, there are options, including Santos, a guy who was once the Blue Jays’ preferred option.