Blue Jays Bullpen Still A Rehab-In-Progess

BY CHRIS TOMAN

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With less than three weeks to go before the Blue Jays embark on their most hyped season in nearly 20 years, Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen -- two critical fixtures of Toronto's bullpen -- continue to inch their way closer to a return.

Santos, who recovered from a sore right triceps that briefly sidelined him this spring, is much further along than Janssen and will be ready for Opening Day provided he encounters no setbacks. It has essentially made Santos the favorite to close, at least to begin the season.

Janssen, on the other hand, is far less likely to be ready, creating some instability in the bullpen and a potential roster spot if he begins the season on the disabled list.

Both relievers are coming off shoulder surgeries that vary in severity, a fact alone that has to be concerning to a club expected to contend for its first playoff berth since 1993.

Janssen, who has yet to appear in a spring game, passed an important hurdle Thursday by throwing live batting practice for the first time. He mainly threw fastballs but mixed in his slider and changeup, too, during the simulated BP session, working from both the stretch and wind-up.

The right-hander will throw in a controlled setting again before pitching in a game but he's starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

"I wish I was at 100 percent and inching to get out of here but, at the same time, that's not the case," Janssen said. "But I don't know, every day is just a new challenge. It's not that I know what tomorrow is going to bring. Today was a step I was able to increase reps and effort level and so, yeah, I'll take that as a plus and see how it is tomorrow."

Janssen has thrown some cutters on flat ground and will incorporate his curveball into his throwing program sometime next week, he hopes.

Although he's making progress, Janssen will still have to throw more simulations before he's ready to appear in a game. Once he does that, the Blue Jays would presumably want him to throw in back-to-back games before deeming him ready for the season opener against Cleveland on April 2.

"You have to challenge the arm and see how it comes back. See the recovery, see what kind of velocity it is, if it needs to get harder or whatever," Janssen said. "And mentally, as every day goes on, if there's good progress then I feel more inclined to throw harder and challenge it even more. Where, if you still have that little bit of doubt in the back of your mind you're still guarding just a touch."

Janssen has accepted that he may not be ready in time for Opening Day but believes he'll be back out there soon.

"I don't think anybody ever pitches at 100 percent but to have it in your back pocket is what they're going to want to see, what I want to see for sure," Janssen said. "I still have some time and I think I'm going to use every day of this camp to get right and, hopefully, if that's the case, then I'll see you guys in Toronto on April 2.

"And if not, the way things are going, it won't be too long after that."

Santos, meanwhile, is feeling good after throwing 18 pitches over an inning of work in a Minor League game Wednesday. He threw fastballs and changeups and plans to incorporate his slider into the mix on Saturday against the Orioles.

The 29-year-old isn't thinking about his repaired shoulder, triceps or the thought of not being ready when the games start to count.

"I don't foresee anything why I shouldn't be ready for Opening Day. If Opening Day was next week, I feel like I would be ready," said Santos, who pitched just five innings for Toronto last season. "So from my standpoint, the way I see it now, I feel like I am 100 percent ready moving on from here."

That's good news for the Blue Jays, especially since they are likely to head north without Janssen, who filled in admirably as the closer last season once Santos went down and Toronto finally ditched the idea of having Francisco Cordero attempt to save games.

There are still hurdles, however, for Santos to overcome, too. For starters, the right-hander has yet to appear in consecutive games.

"I think that's next week. So I will throw Saturday and then I'm thinking maybe at the end of that week or the beginning of the week after that I should be doing a back-to-back," Santos said. "And maybe coming into finish an inning and then going back out for that following inning."

While there doesn't appear to be many question marks on Toronto's roster, the backend of the bullpen has become a source of uncertainty.

As optimistic as both Santos and Janssen are about their health, they enter the 2013 season with plenty of risk.

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