Santana's rehab teaches patience
There is an instinct in baseball to compare. No player who comes up can avoid comparison to some player that came before. We hear whispers when a prospect comes up that he's the next Bob Feller, the next Willie Mays, the next Albert Pujols. When things don't come out that way, they're the next Brien Taylor, the next Ryan Anderson, the next Mark Prior. It's the same with injuries, where every instance is matched to a comparable one from the past.
I understand the instinct, but while we can learn from comparable injuries, I want to remind you that baseball players may be comparable, but they are never identical. Chris Gwynn was not Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Canseco never equaled his brother. The mechanics, the biology, the anatomy -- even the medical care - make every injury different.
With that preface, we look to Johan Santana. After ending his 2010 campaign early and having shoulder surgery, the general expectation was Santana would be back in early July. Given the surgery that Santana had -- a procedure known as a capsulorraphy, designed to repair and tighten the damaged tissue that surround and encases the shoulder joint -- it was a reasonable expectation. However, comparing Santana to Mark Prior and Chien-Ming Wang isn't constructive. Both of those players' surgeries used different techniques and were done by different surgeons. Moreover, Santana doesn't pitch using similar techniques to those players.
Santana is in the midst of a rehab that is divided into three phases. While there are surely small divisions within the program, it's easiest to think of it in rough thirds. The first, which Santana has been successful, is the non-throwing program. It's designed to allow the shoulder to heal, to add strength and stability, and to keep the rest of his body in condition.
The second, which he is just entering, is one where he begins to throw. There's a marked difference between "throw" and "pitch." A throwing program is supposed to ease the arm back into things, progressing from a light game of catch to an extensive series of activities that could include long toss, command drills, and mechanical work.
The final phase gets Santana back into pitching, getting him on the mound, building specific stamina and mechanical skills, and more normal schedules for a starter. Once through this, Santana would be ready for a minor league rehab assignment and an eventual return to the Mets' rotation.
News that Santana may or may not have experienced a setback is tough to read at this stage. Repeating a section of a rehab program is not uncommon and isn't necessarily a setback. Just as some sections can be repeated or go slower, other sections might be 'too easy' or be skipped altogether, depending on how the player handles things. Rehabs may seem like a drone of slow progress, but that progress often comes in stops and starts. Reading anything into a rehab is difficult; the only sure rule is that no news usually is good news.
For Santana, the rehab will continue, setback or not. He'll continue to work on a throwing program that will look nothing like what Mets fans are used to seeing from him. For the next month or more, tantalizing pictures will show up of Santana throwing in the outfield, playing catch with teammates, and looking like a player. He's not -- not yet. July was always an aggressive target for a return and the Mets team context has to be taken into account. If the Mets fall to the bottom of the standings quickly, there's simply no reason to rush Santana back. Getting him back on the mound this year is key, since the Mets front office will want some confidence that Santana will be an ace again. If not, they'll want some certainty on what he'll be.
Santana reminds of us any long-term deal for a pitcher is dangerous, but Santana seemed as safe a bet as any. He did have a history of minor arm problems, but nothing that seemed to be leading to this potentially devastating injury. Over the next two months, Santana and the medical staff will be working hard to get him back to the point he was at before injury. That may be too lofty a goal, but even a high percentage of Santana's previous level is a darn good pitcher. The next key will be Santana throwing long toss, but the following step -- getting up on a mound -- will be the real milestone for his return. As long as that happens before June 1, Santana is on track to return in July. Until then, Santana is only a speculative late round fantasy play in one-year leagues and a possible '12 keeper play in keeper leagues.