Getting accurate injury information is about as easy as getting good seafood in Indianapolis, so adding in language barriers, time zone calculations, and trying to figure out the vagaries of international calling on my cell phone makes things especially challenging. So went the quest to find out the status of Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Calls to the Mariners were greeted with the equivalent of boilerplate text – "He had surgery in early October in Japan and we anticipate him being ready for Spring Training when it opens in blah blah blah." None of my Mariners sources were available, so I dialed up old pal Hidaeki Tomiyama, who lives outside Tokyo. "Tommy" did a bit of searching for me among Japanese sources and, again, there was no real news of any sort.
It seems like a year for West Coast closers to hurt themselves in some significant but not horrible way. Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nen both had minor shoulder surgery and it appears that both will be ready to go by Opening Day, though Hoffman is more of a question. Sasaki underwent surgery of a much more minor nature, having two bone chips taken out of his pitching elbow just after the end of the 2002 season.
Any pitcher will take elbow surgery over shoulder surgery, especially when done arthroscopically. The amazing recovery of Rich Aurilia last year showed everyone just how quickly someone can come back. Aurilia had very similar surgery to that which Sasaki underwent, and it took him only 14 days to return to active play. Aurilia's recovery and subsequent play was a major part of the reason the Giants went on to the World Series.
A more comparable surgery was that of Jeff Nelson, another Mariners reliever. Nelson took 51 days to go from surgery to come back, with a return to activity just three weeks after surgery. It took roughly another month for him to regain his normal velocity after his return. Nelson had only one chip removed, but the extra chip really doesn't factor in.
Using Nelson's timetable for Sasaki – and there's no reason to believe this isn't a reasonable recovery period – the Mariners should have no concerns. Sasaki is likely already throwing somewhere and should be at full velocity by the middle of this month. Given an extra month, Sasaki should be at the level M's fans were used to in 2001 and the first half of 2002.
It's also important to note that this is the third such surgery Sasaki has had. While it is a positive that he has been able to recover quickly and effectively two previous times, it points to a recurring problem. Sasaki seems to be able to pitch around two years before needing to come in for a tune-up, so expect Sasaki to need another scrape and tape some time in his option year of 2005.