Aaron Sanchez's Role with the Blue Jays Is as Unclear as Ever
Start, relief or the minors? The biggest question facing the Blue Jays this spring is what to do with hard-throwing righty Aaron Sanchez.
Photo by Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
There may be a schism coming between the Blue Jays' front office and their field staff on the question of how to handle Aaron Sanchez, but not the one that you necessarily think.
"The job of player development is taking talent and working to have those players achieve their potential, mentally, fundamentally and physically," said club president Mark Shapiro in a radio interview last week. "And you want to get that done prior to getting to the big leagues. Because one thing is, when you get to the big leagues, you fight to survive. You are not developing."
Those wise words have often proven difficult for the Blue Jays to follow—as in the case of Sanchez, who came up to bail out the big-league bullpen at the end of 2014 and hasn't been back to the minor leagues since, save for a handful of rehab appearances while he recovered from a lat strain last summer.
He's a big leaguer, in other words. A status seemingly affirmed Monday, when John Lott tweeted that pitching coach Pete Walker said that sending Sanchez to Buffalo is "not something that has been seriously discussed."
Maybe that's a possibility that merely hasn't been discussed yet. Otherwise, it's not easy to reconcile the idea that sending Sanchez to Buffalo is a non-starter with Shapiro saying that "it's a misnomer to think that you can effectively develop players in the big leagues. When you put a young player in the big leagues, it's a fight or flight—you're looking to do whatever it takes to survive. So making an adjustment—the risk that it takes to make adjustments within a delivery and a batting stance, whatever it is, are really tough to have happen at the major league level."
Because Sanchez—at least the version of him that would be asked to take the ball every fifth day, to go deep into ballgames, to turn over lineups, to trade fastball velocity for stamina, and to use his changeup and curveball to effectively get hitters out on both sides of the plate—is still very much a developing player.
That's not the case for Sanchez the power reliever, who by now has made over 50 regular season big-league relief appearances, with superlative results. But he did so in 2015 not throwing his changeup once in a game situation from the beginning of June onward, according to his usage charts at Brooks Baseball. He threw his curveball just 8.3 percent of the time over the same span.
Those two pitches are going to be vital to his success—especially against left-handed hitters (who hit an astonishing .279/.390/.488 against Sanchez as a group last season)—and they are still very much works in progress.
Sanchez himself told reporters following Friday's performance against the Astros that he needed to find a way to make his curve effective in 0-0 and 1-0 counts, and that he's still trying to refine his change. Pat Hentgen, the former Cy Young winner and current special assistant to the Blue Jays, said in his own radio interview last week that it wouldn't surprise him if Sanchez, should he be allowed to start, was the club's best starter by May.
Sanchez may be the exception who has such a tremendous sinking fastball that he can survive while he figures the rest out, but those splits against left-handers make a strong case to the contrary.
Perhaps his continued inability to harness his secondary stuff this deep into his professional career should tell us that he really is just a (terrific) reliever. But his numbers and his results this spring, for whatever those are worth, have so far said otherwise. And his determination to be a starter—as evidenced by his much-publicized offseason workout regimen—and the tremendous value he can provide to the organization long term perhaps says that he's deserving of a legitimate shot.
Yet there stands Gavin Floyd, who has come to camp healthy, throwing hard, and looking like he may actually be ready to reemerge as the mid-rotation workhorse he was for the White Sox before his elbow blew up around the end of 2012.
It's easy to dream on the possibility after a few turns through the Grapefruit League against minor leaguers and veterans still trying to get up to speed, just as it's easy to dream on the possibility of Sanchez taking the ball and running with it. Just as it was last spring with Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and Miguel Castro—all of whom experienced the kinds of growing pains that Shapiro seems determined to avoid.
"Our jobs are going to be to make sure the players that are close get developed with a strong foundation that when they get here they can stay here, or as much as possible to stay here, because sometimes the natural developmental process is to get up here, get exposed to it, understand the adjustment, go back, make the adjustment, come back," he explained. "And sometimes it happens more than once. But build the foundation that enables them to sustain a championship calibre major league career."
For Sanchez, do you build that foundation by throwing him into the fire? Do you do it by cutting bait on his future as a starter and sending him to the bullpen?
Or do you do it, if you're Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, by having a tough talk with Sanchez, and with Walker, and with John Gibbons about it being best for him to start the season at Buffalo?
Rarely this spring has there been a hint that the Blue Jays would entertain such an idea. Almost all of the chatter has focused on whether Sanchez should start or pitch in relief. But maybe it's just too soon to hand a rotation spot to Gavin Floyd. Maybe it's a serious conversation that, unbeknownst to the pitching coach, they simply haven't had yet.
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