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.