JUPITER, Fla. • Cardinals reliever Jason Motte continued his steady progress Tuesday through a throwing program that will, if it goes as planned, get him ready to return to the bullpen as the hard-throwing, late-inning righty he was when last he appeared in a game.
He’s just not sure that return will be by opening day.
Motte said Tuesday that it would be “a push” at his current pace to be available for the Cardinals when they head north from spring training and open the regular season in Cincinnati on March 31. Officials with the team confirmed Motte’s feel for his schedule though cautioned it could accelerate if his arm allows. Motte’s program was delayed some by a recent bout of tendinitis in his shoulder, an official confirmed.
“When guys come into camp, their first bullpen here has more intensity than mine have been this week because I’m not at that point yet,” Motte said. “You don’t want to push it because then you end up messing with your arm, your shoulder, other stuff because it’s not quite ready. I don’t want to push for April and have trouble when I could be ready later and pitch the whole season.”
The Cardinals’ list of pitchers who are unlikely to be available for opening day grew this past week because of Jaime Garcia’s soreness in his left shoulder and Motte’s recovery. Garcia will visit Dr. James Andrews today in Pensacola, Fla., for a second opinion on the shoulder discomfort that forced him from the mound last week. General manager John Mozeliak said the team would wait until Andrews has evaluated Garcia before announcing the next step in Garcia’s recovery and whether the lefty will begin throwing again in the near future.
The team has said it’s unlikely he’ll open the season ready to start.
All offseason and through this spring, manager Mike Matheny has avoided using the word “depth” in any answer other than one explaining why he won’t describe it. He talked openly about the team’s pitching depth a year ago “and ended up testing it,” Matheny said. The absence of Garcia from the starters’ competition and Motte potentially from the bullpen leaves the Cardinals with two vacancies in the pitching staff, but not with two roles to fill.
Neither Garcia or Motte was on the postseason roster. Only relievers Edward Mujica and John Axford do not return from the October bullpen.
Openings increase the likelihood that both starting candidates Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez will fill key roles entering the season and that non-roster invitee Pat Neshek, a righty specialist, has a greater opportunity to win a job.
“We haven’t been talking depth,” Matheny said. “We promised that last year and we got tested.”
As if on karmic cue, closer Trevor Rosenthal cut his workout short Tuesday.
Rosenthal experienced soreness in his upper quadriceps muscle and groin as he pitched. He had to stop just shy of his assigned 25 pitches in a live batting practice session because of the soreness. He was diagnosed with a strained groin and will ease off for a few days to avoid further injury.
“It’s nothing real serious,” Rosenthal said. “Being this early, I thought I would say something and take care of it now. It seems like no big deal.”
While every other pitcher in camp has advanced to facing hitters, Motte continues to throw light bullpen sessions. He threw Tuesday off the mound to a crouching catcher for the second time this spring. He described his effort as 50 to 60 percent. His schedule calls for him to increase his effort later this week during a bullpen session. Motte has only been throwing fastballs off the mound and will begin to introduce his cut fastball, which he has only thrown when playing catch on flat ground.
Before the start of spring training, Motte had some tendinitis in his right shoulder, a condition not unusual for a pitcher returning from ligament replacement surgery. He is 9½ months removed from the surgery — and rehab can take 12 months for a starting pitcher or around 10 months for a relief pitcher. Those timetables depend on the individual.
“His plan can be re-evaluated based on how he’s progressing with what he’s doing now,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “It’s not an acceleration based on our need. It’s an acceleration based on his ability to get through the steps in his program. If we stay with the plan that is in place now, he’s behind, absolutely.”
Motte’s concern is arriving in the majors with training wheels.
As he considers the possibility of facing hitters for the first time in mid-March and appearing in his first games toward the end of the Grapefruit League schedule, Motte said he would rather ramp up on a rehab assignment than be limited in the majors.
“There’s no ‘let’s take it easy on him’ in the majors, especially in the bullpen,” Motte said. “If you’re in, you’re in. … That’s not helping anybody. If you have a seven-man bullpen and one guy is someone you have to baby — if it’s September, that’s different. You could throw me once every couple days and get me where I need to be then. This is the start of the season. You can’t start with a six-man bullpen.”
Garcia met with Dr. George Paletta in St. Louis on Monday to get a first opinion on his shoulder trouble. Paletta performed surgery last May to correct a tear in Garcia’s labrum and address significant damage to the pitcher’s rotator cuff. As is his right, Garcia requested a second opinion before he had landed in St. Louis for his first. Garcia has twice before visited Dr. Andrews about his shoulder.
Andrews suggested a non-surgical rehab for Garcia following the 2012 season, and last spring Andrews was one of the doctors who consulted with Garcia and suggested surgery.
While unable to throw at this time, Garcia is out to show the same thing as Motte.
“First determine health and then you can worry about the next step (and) what this camp means to him,” Mozeliak said “Good thing is we have options, and we have the depth to handle this if we need to.”