TEMPE, ARIZ. — All-Star pitcher Ervin Santana was diagnosed Sunday with a sprained ligament in his throwing elbow and will open the season on the disabled list, a potentially significant setback for a team already thin on starting pitching.
Santana, 26, projected as the Angels' No. 2 starter after a 16-7 record and a 3.49 earned-run average in 2008, experienced tightness in the elbow after pitching an inning in an intrasquad game Tuesday.
Santana, who signed a four-year, $30-million contract in February, underwent an MRI test, the results showing the sprain of the medial collateral ligament. He will he held out from throwing indefinitely, and no timetable has been set for his return.
"We don't anticipate it being something that's going to set him back for any appreciable part of the season, but we're certainly going to take it slow and work him back to where he needs to be," Manager Mike Scioscia said.
"We're going to get a better read as we move along. But from where we are now and where he would need to be, the start of season is going to be a little bit of a stretch. We don't anticipate this being much longer than that."
Santana seemed to be in a state of denial early Sunday morning. Asked how his elbow felt, Santana said, "Everything is good." Asked whether he underwent an MRI test, he repeated, "Everything is good."
Later in the day, after Scioscia met with reporters, Santana acknowledged the inflammation in his elbow was significant, but not as bad as what he felt in 2004, when he sat out half of the season because of an elbow strain.
"I was worried before talking to Dr. [Lewis] Yocum," Santana said. "I thought it would be worse. I thought I'd need surgery. But after he checked the MRI, he told me it had calmed down."
Santana threw a career-high 219 innings last season, striking out 214, walking 47 and holding opponents to a .237 batting average. He also made four winter league starts in the Dominican Republic, throwing 16 innings, but Scioscia said Santana did not have any health issues entering camp.
"I don't think there were a lot of symptoms that he came in with," Scioscia said. "I don't think it's much different than what happens with a lot of guys."
Once Santana begins playing catch, it will take several weeks to build up the arm strength and stamina needed to join the Angels' rotation, so it is possible he could sit out much of April.
He could remain in Arizona for extended spring training after the Angels break camp, or, if he's ready, begin the season on a minor league rehabilitation assignment.
"I don't think there's any definite time when he's going to start his throwing program," Scioscia said. "But it should be a shorter window as opposed to a longer window, where he's not going to pick up a ball for three or four weeks. We don't anticipate that."
Santana's absence means that the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation among Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux and Nick Adenhart will now be a battle for the final two rotation spots behind John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver.
Weaver has been slowed this spring by shoulder tightness but is scheduled to make his exhibition debut Tuesday against Cleveland.
Kelvim Escobar is far ahead of schedule in his recovery from shoulder surgery, but the veteran right-hander is not expected back until May, at the earliest.
The Angels could also look outside the organization for pitchers. Two free agents available are veteran right-hander Pedro Martinez, who threw three shutout innings for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, and veteran right-hander Paul Byrd, who pitched for the Angels in 2005.
"We have some guys we feel are going to be able to do the job and help us get the rotation that can help us do what we need to do out of the chute," Scioscia said. "We expect Ervin to be ready shortly after the start of the season. We feel we're in good shape."
Torii Hunter, slowed by a tight hamstring, made his exhibition debut in the Angels' 8-1 victory over San Francisco on Sunday. The center fielder hit a run-scoring single in his first at-bat and played three innings. Adenhart threw three scoreless innings to help the Angels improve to 9-1, and Chone Figgins made two superb plays, backhand stabs of grounders and throws to first for outs. . . . Outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., recovering from October surgery to repair a knee tendon, has been going full-bore in workouts and hopes to make his exhibition debut Sunday. He said he fully expects to be ready for opening day. . . . Catcher Mike Napoli, recovering from shoulder surgery, has extended his long-toss program to 120 feet but still appears to be a longshot to be ready by opening day.