ST. LOUIS — Nearly nine months after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Cardinals reliever Jason Motte doesn’t know when he’ll return to the mound.
"It won’t be a normal spring training," he said, and that’s about all the specifics he knows regarding his comeback.
Motte headed to Camp Jupiter in Florida last week to begin a throwing program that, barring setbacks, would put him back in the bullpen sometime before the Fourth of July. That could mean Opening Day, Memorial Day or, really, who knows.
"I don’t know a timetable," he said at the Winter Warm-Up. "You don’t want to rush it to where we’re not doing anything but hurting me and everyone else."
Motte says the final stages of his comeback will proceed much like the early months after his surgery last May 7. That is, if all goes well with his work one day, he takes another baby step the next day. Return time from elbow ligament replacement surgery typically is around a year, give or take up to three months. If that seems like too wide a window, it’s in line with Tommy John comebacks of three other relievers in recent seasons:
• Joe Nathan underwent surgery at the end of spring training in 2010 and was back for the start of 2011. Nathan, who is eight years older than the 31-year-old Motte, scuffled for much of that season but returned to elite form in 2012 and was even better in 2013.
• Neftali Feliz needed longer than Nathan, missing from May 18, 2012, until Sept. 1, 2013. Feliz is a hard thrower, as is Motte, but also is six years younger and throws a devastating slider, a pitch that is considered harder on the throwing arm than a fastball.
• Brian Wilson missed nearly 16 months of big league duty, from April 12, 2012, until Aug. 22, 2013. Also a hard thrower, Wilson is just four months older and he returned throwing as well as ever. What makes his comeback different — not to mention remarkable — is that it was from his second Tommy John surgery.
No wonder Motte doesn’t want to be pinned to a timetable. "Everybody is different," he said. "Everybody’s body reacts different to the surgeries, to this and that. It’s a process, a slow process. I’m just chilling, trying to get better."
Frankly, Motte isn’t worried about his return date. Nor should he be, for at least three good reasons:
• He gained a new perspective on life and baseball when he sat out last season. Typically limited to two hours of rehab on most days, Motte had plenty of time to spend at home with his wife, Caitlin, and their baby daughter, Margaret, who was born last Jan. 7. Motte also became close with a young cancer patient, Brandt Ballenger, and frequently hung around him and his family in the months before Brandt died last July.
"Stuff like that really didn’t make (sitting out) that hard, to be honest with you," Motte said. "If you’d ask me a couple of years ago, I’d probably have had a different answer. I’d have been chomping at the bit."
• With or without him, the Cardinals’ relief corps is set up for success. "We have some pretty good guys down there so it’s not like they’re really hurting," Motte said.
One of those guys is Trevor Rosenthal, who was appointed to Motte’s old job as closer shortly after the 2013 World Series. Before manager Mike Matheny made the announcement, he called Motte to tell him his old position would be taken.
"I get it 100 percent," Motte said. "There’s the uncertainty with my arm. Coming back, there’s no telling if you’ll be 100 percent right away. It’s about winning ballgames. I’ve been 100 percent in the ninth inning and still blown the mess out of games. Me going out there not being 100 percent isn’t where you want someone to be in the ninth inning. Trevor, with what he’s done, has been awesome."
• Perhaps most significant, worrying about his comeback wouldn’t do Motte a bit of good. "Me rushing isn’t going to help anyone," he said. "I need to take my time, get healthy and get where I can go out there and help the team win."
Motte contributed plenty last year by offering counsel to the rookie-stocked bullpen and cheering on his teammates. He remained as upbeat as anyone on the club. His teammates so much appreciated his ways at and away from the ballpark that they voted him the winner of the team’s Darryl Kile award for being a "good teammate, a great friend, a fine father and a humble man."
He had become a fine closer, too, before his elbow blew last spring. Since the surgery, he has been told that some Tommy John survivors come back throwing even harder than before. Considering that Motte could touch triple digits with his fastball, he would be more than happy if that happens. "If it’s less than that, I may have to figure out how to pitch," he said, half-jokingly.
The Cardinals maintain that Motte remains on schedule.
"The key for him when he starts his throwing program is how quickly he can assume real game activity," general manager John Mozeliak said. "As we stand here, I don’t know that answer. I’m optimistic he’ll be a contributor at some point in the near future."
Returning from Tommy John is more demanding for a reliever than for a starter in at least one way. A starter knows when he will pitch, and can use the days between starts to rest and prepare. A reliever has to be ready to go two, three or even four days in a row. Coming off surgery adds to the task.
"Once you’re in it, you’re in it," Motte said. "If they need you (one day) and you do well, and your situation comes up tomorrow, it’s like, ‘Hey how are you doing?’ You want to be able to say, ‘Awesome, put me in there.’"
Motte will be pitching for his future, too. He is entering the second year of a two-year, $12 million deal he landed after saving 42 games with a 2.75 ERA in 2012. With such a young and talented bullpen, the Cardinals aren’t likely to hand out another such deal for a setup man. Of course, if Motte returns and throws like the man who closed out the 2011 World Series, perhaps he could take back his old job in 2015 and Rosenthal could make his much-desired bid to become a starter.
But for someone who isn’t looking past today, Motte says he hasn’t given next year much thought.
"I don’t really think much about anything, honestly," he said. "Last year my goal was to do what I could to rehab and get myself healthy. This year, it’s get healthy, get out there and pitch and help the team win. I really don’t think about anything other that."
He really shouldn’t, either, considering the challenge he’s already facing.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.