Aaron Sanchez Wants To Be A Starter, But Will He Be OK With Being One In Buffalo?

Aaron Sanchez
Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Sanchez shouldn’t go back to the bullpen.

That’s not a statement made wide-eyed with excitement over his strong performance on Sunday — a one hit, one walk, four strikeout outing over four innings (albeit against a fairly uninspiring Rays lineup) — or from having watched the Sportsnet broadcast that couldn’t stop talking about his rotation potential, but one that has made sense for a long, long time.

He’s a starter who was lent to the bullpen the last couple of years, not a power reliever looking to try his hand in the rotation, so it makes perfect sense. In terms of his development — that is, what little of it there can possibly be left before we simply concede that he is what he is — being in the rotation is clearly the best thing for him. It will force him, or so the hope is, to rely on more than just his bowling ball of a fastball to get hitters out, refining his secondary pitches in the process.

Sanchez doesn’t want to go back to the bullpen, either, telling reporters on Sunday, such as Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star, “Absolutely, I think I’m a start, they know I wanna be a starter, everyone in baseball knows I wanna be a starter.”

If he keeps pitching the way he did on Sunday perhaps he’ll make the answer to the question of whether he should be in the Blue Jays’ rotation a fairly simple one. As it stands, however, even after that performance, it’s really not.

And it’s especially not as simple as the way we’re used to having the discussion framed — “rotation or relief?” — would suggest.

Currently it’s Gavin Floyd — who followed Sanchez on Sunday, looking pretty good himself while allowing just one run on two fifth-inning doubles, giving up only those two hits, no walks, and striking out five through three innings — who is complicating the issue, but by the end of camp it could conceivably be Drew Hutchison, or Jesse Chavez, or maybe even somebody else (though Roberto Hernandez has done himself no favours so far).

There are only five spots in the rotation, and the fact that Sanchez could use that development time still — or seems like he could when he’s not mowing down the likes of Brandon Guyer, Mikie Mahtook, and the withered husk of James Loney — and that he can be optioned to the minors makes one wonder whether his determination to be a starter outweighs how badly he wants to be in the major leagues.

Could Buffalo be in the cards for him? You certainly don’t get the sense from the TV broadcast that it is, but it has to be a possibility.

It’s a little early still to be asking this question, of course. Nobody should be banking on Gavin Floyd to continue to be… y’know… decent. Or healthy. The right-hander has made just 14 big league starts since the end of the 2012 season, and looked like he was maybe only picked up to be a depth piece and potential reliever, especially after he came back from a fractured right elbow to pitch in relief for Cleveland last year.

But he was a very serviceable pitcher from 2008 to 2012 for the White Sox, amassing 15.4 WAR, per FanGraphs, over those five seasons. Perhaps with a bit of health (he had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and has struggled to stay on the field due to elbow trouble ever since) he can get back to that level. He is only just 33 still, and it’s not as though he was relying on overpowering stuff when he was good.

And the new Jays’ front office — headed, as various gelatinous blobs of anti-Shapiro scum delight in pointing out, by the son of Floyd’s agent — seems to be banking on that, at least in a small way. They gave him a big league deal, after all, and the way Floyd tells it, they’ve assured him that he’ll come north with the club as long as he’s healthy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean as a starter, but if he can do it… why not?

Because here’s the thing:

Sanchez had major struggles against left-handers last season. He allowed a horrific .282/.390/.488 against them last season, for example, with 29 walks to 22 strikeouts, and a favourable BABIP of .281. And as a starter, opposing batters hit .244/.343/.430 against him when facing him the second time (compared to .202/.316/.369 the first time, and .178/.245/.222 as a reliever).

Some observers, as those who’ve listened to Drew on Birds All Day can attest, have doubts that those sort of problems are just going to magically go away by asking Sanchez to overpower a bunch of quad-A guys in Buffalo. After all, those numbers point to exactly the issues we’ve heard about for years: trouble with command and with unrefined secondary stuff. But the problems aren’t going to go away if he’s pitching in relief, where in 2014 he became essentially a one-pitch pitcher by the end (87.1% sinkers, 8.6% four-seamers that September), and would have done so in 2015 as well,  if not for his mixing in a cutter (66.3% sinkers, 16.6% cutters, 9.8% four-seamers).

Maybe he can make a go of it as a starter with just those pitches and his curveball — they’re certainly very good, and it’s not like he was using his slider or change very much as a starter in 2015. He just wasn’t getting lefties out, either.

And here’s another thing, which BP Toronto’s Gideon Turk put best in a tweet on Sunday:

“Mark Shapiro is way too smart to put Sanchez in the bullpen. Somebody who ‘scolded’ AA over trading away prospects to go for it would never throw away Sanchez’s career as a SP and put him in the bullpen.”

I think that’s absolutely right. And not only do the Jays have too few near-to-MLB prospects as it is, they also have R.A. Dickey and Jesse Chavez heading towards free agency next winter. Floyd, if he turns into anything, will be, too. That leaves just Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, and J.A. Happ as returning rotation stalwarts set for 2017, and having guys like Sanchez and Hutchison (and, hopefully eventually, Osuna) able to step in and fill those roles without costing major free agent dollars will be huge.

Even if they do end up spending on a starter, they’re going to need depth — and we’ve seen quite clearly from all the experienced names in camp this spring how thoroughly Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins believe in that.

Does removing Sanchez from that mix right now, and possibly forever, seem like the kind of thing they’d do? Because to me it doesn’t.

And speaking of the belief in depth that they so clearly have, does shedding a perfectly serviceable Gavin Floyd (assuming that’s what he still looks like by the end of camp) in order to put Sanchez in the rotation sound like something they would do? Does losing someone out of the bullpen so that Floyd can be a lower-rung reliever instead and Sanchez can be in the rotation sound like something they’d do?

I really don’t think it does — unless Floyd falters or Sanchez is (remains?) so utterly electric as a starter that he gives them no choice.

Again: it’s dependent on Floyd right now, really. And what that means is way up in the air, too — especially since his impressive performance on Sunday saw him face and even more watered-down Rays lineup than Sanchez did.

But if Floyd doesn’t fall apart, and if Sanchez can be sent to Buffalo, can keep working on starting, going deep into games, and using his full repertoire, and then can either be brought up if someone gets injured or underperforms, or as an impact reliever later in the season? The Blue Jays surely see how that really is the ideal situation.

Unless you’re Aaron Sanchez, I suspect. Though it would at least leave him a starter.

“It comes down to what makes the team better,” he said on Sunday’s broadcast. “If they think that’s me in the ‘pen, that’s something we’ll figure out when the time comes.”

Sanchez is certainly a big leaguer as a reliever, and began last year in the paper-thin Blue Jays’ rotation, so it’s understandable that the possibility of a spell in Buffalo might not enter his head. But as a starter, in a lot of ways he’s still a prospect.

Don’t be surprised if he ends up having to find that out the hard way.

  • Nego

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2016/03/al-east-notes-rays-moncada-jays-sanchez.html

    I’m assuming this blurb on MLBTR is incorrect and Sanchez actually does have options, correct?

    I wouldn’t be against him starting at AAA. Although to go deep in October I think it’s important for the Jays to have another top of the rotation guy to confidently slot behind Stroman. I think Sanchez has the most potential to do this out of our internal options.

    I think you have to bring the team north that gives you the best chance to win, and if that’s Floyd in the rotation than I’m on board. I do think that Sanchez’s upside is higher. If he does end up starting at AAA and pitches above expectations we shouldn’t wait for an injury to call him up.

    Someone (FTS?) mentioned that we face alot of AL East teams in April. If Floyd (or Sanchez) falters early it could be the difference later on.

    • MikeB

      But here’s the hard part:

      You say that “I think you have to bring the team north that gives you the best chance to win”. Which is fine – and if Floyd beats out Sanchez as the 5th starter, so be it.

      But if that’s the case, bringing the team north that gives you the best chance to win involves Sanchez in the bullpen, not in AAA.

    • OakvilleJays

      I said that the Blue Jays face a bunch of AL east teams in April so they should put Sanchez in the rotation ASAP. I don’t think Floyd will stay healthy enough to pitch 30 starts this year.

  • Sammy the Bull

    All in – regular season, minor league rehab, and playoffs – Sanchez pitched ~109 innings in 2015. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to think he will be on an innings cap this year as teams usually try to limit the YoY increase in IP for young pitchers.

    Last year as a starter Sanchez made it to early-June making 11 starts and pitched 66 innings. At the very least, why not have him once again begin the year as a starter, hopefully pitch into July this time around, and then have him back in the bullpen once he is approaching his cap?

    That way the team can give him a longer look as a starter and keeping building the innings total for the future, while also setting up the “super pen” for what will hopefully be an important stretch drive.

    • Sammy the Bull

      Left unsaid in my post is that if Sanchez is indeed on an innings cap, do we really want any of those innings being allocated to the Buffalo Bisons instead of the Toronto Blue Jays?

      I don’t, so I’d start him until he either (1) is ineffective to the point that he should not be a starter; or (2) the innings count mandates that it is time for him to take his talents to the ‘pen for the balance of the 2016 season.

      • Because you peel away a layer of depth by losing either a viable 5th starter in Floyd or whoever Floyd forces out of the bullpen mix. Floyd is redundant with Chavez in the bullpen, so either he’s released or and would be a low-rung reliever at best.

        I get what you’re saying about wasting Sanchez’s limited (though I don’t think they’ll be THAT limited) innings in Buffalo, but making him a reliever creates a hole in next year’s rotation that you could potentially (and potentially very effectively) fill, and putting him in the rotation to start creates other problems.

        Plus, if those innings are being “wasted” because someone on the big league club isn’t pulling his weight, there’s an easy way to un-waste them. And this allows Sanchez to get a bunch of innings as a starter, then come help the club in the second half in relief.

        • Sammy the Bull

          Why are you losing Floyd as a starting rotation option if he does not begin the year as a starter? Marco Estrada was the mop-up man out of the bullpen to begin the 2015 season, and clearly transitioned into a very effective starter as the year progressed.

          Plus, from everything we are reading Floyd is throwing surprisingly hard, so his stuff may well play up coming out of the ‘pen.

          Assuming all are healthy, I have Sanchez as my #5 starter to begin the season, with Chavez and Floyd in the bullpen and Hutch in Buffalo. And again, if Sanchez is either ineffective as a starter or begins to tire, you have three in-house options that have had some measure of MLB success that can step in.

          The Jays used 12 starting pitchers last year and 9 in 2014, so in all likelihood all of these guys will be called on at some point. But Sanchez is clearly the one that matters the most in the “big picture”. I’d love to get him 16 – 17 starts (assuming innings cap in the 150 – 160 range) and then see where we stand.

  • Barry

    All I know is that someone has to step up and be the “if Estrada goes on the DL they both start for the Jays” guy, because that’s the sort of sunny outlook that will make an off day great.

  • fastball

    I’m not sure how Sanchez would take a stint in Buffalo to get ALL his pitches going on a consistent basis for multiple innings….in fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “cheerfully” is not an adjective that will be used in context.
    But it might be better for a)Sanchez, who can work on his pitching to lefty numbers, and who can build up strength to consistently go deep into games. And it might be better for b)the club, who might ride a guy like Gavin Floyd for as long as his arm holds out.
    Is a healthy Gavin Floyd (even for a short term) better than a still-developing Sanchez?

  • Player to Be Named Later

    I absolutely hate this idea — precisely because I felt so strongly the other way, but it has slowly grown on me that Sanchez in Buffalo may well be the best thing for the club. It seems crazy-counter-intuitive at times, but having him stretched out makes a lot of sense.

  • ErnieWhitt

    I certainly hope with all of the talk about the new Management’s view on collaboration, and communication that at the very least they can have a long sit-down with Sanchez and explain to him why they would send him to Buffalo for his long-term benefit.

    Personally I would have him in the rotation all things being equal. Still, there are other considerations to count and if the team really sees Floyd as a viable option, with Chavez sliding into the long-man role, then they owe it to Sanchez to explain fully why they are making a decision and what they expect from him in order to force his way back to the team.

    I would cringe, however, if they park him in AAA in order to horde arms at the expense of team performance.

  • Steve-O

    It’s a pickle.

    One one hand, having him in the bullpen (and the idea of pushing his development as a starter off for another year) seems short-sighted to me, but in this all-in season of 2016 it makes perfect sense. Go for it while the roster remains stacked.

    On the other hand, having him continue to start in Buffalo to begin the season so he’s available when a starter gets hurt – or turns into a pumpkin – is a good idea, too. I lean this way.

    I really have no idea how this will play out, but from the sounds of it, Gibby would like him in the bullpen, and short-term, I certainly see the appeal of having him there. Maybe this can all be revisited for 2017.

    In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast.

  • For the last two years I’ve thought of Sanchez as purely a reliever. Some muscle mass and a few March innings mowing down jobbers getting back into the swing of things hasn’t really swayed me, though I’d love to be wrong.

    Shapiro and Atkins would obviously love for that not to be the case as well, and one need only look at Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to see what kind of rope they’ll give a fledgling pitcher with good stuff but who hasn’t put it all together yet, not that I am putting Sanchez in the same echelon of pitcher as those two.

    • AJ, Breakfast Army Fan

      Problem solved maybe so long as all 6 pitch well enough. Otherwise you’re just running a worse guy out there more often than you probably need to. Between off days, Dickey on short rest, and potential Chavez/Floyd spot starts, there will be plenty of ways to manage innings.

  • mktoronto

    Blair and Wilner sure beating the drum on sending him to the bullpen. But the Storen trade makes no sense unless you’re turning him into a starter. Would love to see him here but wouldn’t be the end of the world if he ended up in Buffalo. Hutch is in the same boat.

    • Steve-O

      The trade still makes sense if the Jays approach was to raise the floor of the bullpen. With or without Sanchez back there, your worst bullpen arm just got a lot less bad.

  • AJ, Breakfast Army Fan

    Would Floyd in the pen be that bad of a thing? Who would he knock of the roster that would be so bad to lose? Tepera? Delabar? We haven’t even seen Schultz or Soriano yet.

    • Kristen Sprague

      Besides as Stoeten noted Floyd is not guaranteed to be here next year whereas Sanchez is. I’d rather him start now and going forward while he is still cheap.

      • OakvilleJays

        Agreed. The fascination with Floyd is surprising. I don’t think he deserves to be in the starting rotation unless Sanhez,Hutch & Chavez completely flop this spring.

  • Nego

    The six man rotation works if the rotation’s range from ceiling-floor is small.

    Do we want to see Floyd start that bad that we lose 5-6 starts of Stroman?

    I can buy into the innings thing. But as it’s shaping it looks like we’ll have plenty of guys (Osuna, Floyd, Hutch, Chavez, Sanch) capable of throwing multi-innings out of the pen. No need to roll a 6-man rotation.

  • Bad Dabbler

    Per Wilner there is zero percent chance he ends up in buffalo

    literally zero according to his saturday jays talk.

    he must know something to come down this hard.

  • Sammy the Bull

    Opening Day Pitching Staff (in my world):

    Starters (5) – Stroman, Estrada, Dickey, Happ, Sanchez

    Bullpen (7) – Storen, Osuna, Cecil, Floyd, Chavez, Second Lefty, 7th Man in Pen (Tepera, Delebar, Biagini, etc.)

    We already know that Aaron can be an effective major league reliever; we think that he might be able to be an effective major league starter. Let’s give him a longer look this year, and if his performance doesn’t cut it or his innings need to be scaled back, just swap him with Floyd or Chavez when required.