Marlins ace plays ‘Sandy Claus’ at team holiday event, updates on Tommy John rehab

When Sandy Alcantara was growing up in the Dominican Republic, he did what so many other children did growing up on Christmas Eve.

“My parents always told me, ‘Santa Claus is going to be here tonight’ and I always waited for him, but he never came,” said Alcantara, who noted that the gift he always wanted as a kid was a cellphone. “I always saw my gift because my parents bought it for me. “

Fast forward to the present, and it was Alcantara’s turn to be the gift bearer.

He emerged from the Marlins’ dugout on Monday as “Sandy Claus,” passing out presents to 30 kids from CNC Learning Enrichment Program at Alpha Charter of Excellence on the loanDepot park field. Alcantara and Billy the Marlin (also dressed in a Santa costume) sat next to a tree behind home plate and greeted each kid one by one.

“It’s a special moment for me and for them,” Alcantara said. “I’m happy to be here, doing this for those kids, but I feel a little weird, because I never saw a dark Santa Claus, but I feel happy about it being here today.”

The event put a smile on the kids’ faces — and on Alcantara’s as he maneuvers through one of the tougher times of his career.

Alcantara, the Marlins’ ace and 2022 Cy Young Award winner, will not pitch in 2024 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. Despite a last-ditch attempt to return to the mound, the UCL injury in his right elbow sidelined him for the final month of the regular season and for Miami’s brief playoff appearance that ended with Miami being swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild card series.

Alcantara’s role changed from producing on the field to supporting from the dugout. He will continue in that role next season.

“It’s tough,” Alcantara said, “because I’ve been thinking about how I’m not going to pitch in 2024. Hopefully I’m going to be here for my team every day. I’ve been working hard to get back as soon as I can. But it’s hard for me because I don’t want to be in this situation. ... I’ve just got to be happy because I’ll have more opportunities. Hopefully I’ll come back in 2025 better than ever.”

Alcantara said he is at loanDepot park every day doing his rehab to maximize his eventual return. He’s working out close to three hours a day with a modified routine from what he normally does during the season — “I only have one arm and a half,” Alcantara said with a laugh — and he said he hasn’t experienced any setbacks.

“It’s been two months since my surgery,” Alcantara said. “I feel better. Very strong. I think I’ve been recovering very fast. I’ve just got to wait and do my best.”

Without Alcantara, the Marlins at this point have eight internal options barring trades to fill their rotation spots. Lefties Jesus Luzardo and Braxton Garrett along with righty Eury Perez appear to be the top three options. Righties Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer as well as lefties Trevor Rogers, Ryan Weathers and A.J. Puk are the others.

Luzardo and Garrett had breakout seasons and started the Marlins’ two playoff games against the Phillies. Luzardo set the franchise record for most single-season strikeouts by a lefty (208), and the Marlins went 21-9 in Garrett’s 30 starts. Both set single-season career highs for starts (32 for Luzardo, 30 for Garrett) and innings pitched (178 2/3 for Luzardo, 159 2/3 for Garrett).

Perez, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball entering this season, pitched to a 3.15 ERA in 19 MLB starts. The 20-year-old, standing at 6-8, struck out 108 batters through 91 1/3 innings before ending the season on the injured list with inflammation in his left SI joint, which connects the pelvis to the lower spine.

Cabrera dealt with command issues early in the season which resulted in him being sent down to the minor leagues for a month but still posted a 4.24 ERA and tossed 99 2/3 innings with 118 strikeouts against 66 walks over 22 appearances (20 starts).

Rogers, the runner-up for the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year award, missed most of the season due to injury, first a left biceps strain and then a partial tear in his right lat. Meyer sat out 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Weathers was a trade deadline acquisition, and Puk pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last season but started in the minor leagues.