D-backs willing to gamble on Saito’s health

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When the Diamondbacks signed reliever Takashi Saito to a one-year contract this offseason, they knew exactly what they were getting into. They were so aware of the 42-year-old’s injury history they didn’t even have him take a physical, because they knew he would probably fail it.

The Diamondbacks decided Saito was worth the risk.

“We felt that the risk wasn’t that big of a risk for us,” Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said Monday. “We thought that his skill set and what he could bring to the club far outweighed the risk.”

Saito made just 30 appearances for the Brewers last season, compiling a career low 26 2/3 innings. The right-hander pitched just twice in the first week of the season before going on the disabled list with the first in a string of injuries, hamstring tightness. While getting that issue worked out, Saito suffered a strained oblique.

Saito also experienced shoulder tightness while rehabbing the oblique but finally came off the disabled list just before the All-Star Break. The injuries cost Saito about half the season, but he still played a key role in the bullpen that helped the Brewers win the NL Central and reach the NLCS.

In typically light duty — pitching on back-to-back days just once — Saito posted a 2.03 ERA, the third-best mark of his career and best since 2007. His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was only slightly higher than his 2010 mark, but he also collected a career low in strikeouts per nine innings.

Against the D-backs in the NLDS, Saito threw three scoreless innings and allowed just two hits.

With such efficiency, it’s hard not to wonder what Saito might have accomplished in a healthy season. The D-backs hope to find out, and that starts with taking things slow this spring so he’s properly conditioned come Opening Day.

“That wasn’t the way it went last year,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “I talked to Ron Roenicke, his manager from last year, about that and he said (Saito) just got behind. So we don’t want him to go too far and pull a hamstring like he did last year. His program will be a little different.”

Gibson said Saito will take on a lighter load in pickoff drills and fielding practice. Saito said he’s about midway through the conditioning program he started upon returning to Japan after last season and plans to reach full strength in the next month.

“Of course I have confidence that I will be able to stay healthy this year,” Saito said Monday through interpreter Shigenari Matsumoto. “Conditioning is the highest priority this spring.”

Towers said based on everything the team has heard over the past few seasons that Saito would have failed a physical. D-backs advanced scout Mark Weidemaier, who was with the Dodgers at the same time Saito was, even said Saito’s arm could go with one pitch.

Despite such pessimism, the D-backs are confident he can strengthen a bullpen.

“You just have to watch how you use him and utilize him in games,” Towers said. “He’s in great shape, and he’s been about as consistent a reliever as any I can think of in the game over the last five years.”

Said Gibson: “The biggest thing he has is that he closed, and he was very good at it. It takes a different bird to be able to do that. You have to have a certain mentality, a certain thought process and a certain belief and confidence in your pitches.”

Saito said he feels healthy and looks forward to the prospect of a full season. But at 42 and given his recent injury history, he knows it’s no given.

“I have confidence if I’m healthy that I can maintain what I’ve done in the past,” Saito said. “But I also understand how difficult that is. The everyday process of training is very important.”