The Aaron Sanchez Debate Is Over… For Now

Aaron Sanchez
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Having Aaron Sanchez start the year in the rotation, then move to the bullpen towards the end of the season unquestionably worked out well for the Blue Jays in 2015, though it wasn’t by design.

We learned today that this season he’ll do the same, but absolutely by design.

That is, unless injury or performance issues derail the plan.

Hmm.

I’ve been vocal about the idea that the Jays shouldn’t have felt that they need to force a decision on Sanchez for Opening Day, especially if that decision was going to land him in the bullpen — thus making it even less likely that he’ll ever reach his elusive potential as a starting pitcher. But this wasn’t exactly the way I’d expected, or hoped, or thought they would do it.

Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily a terrible way to do it, but they seem to have kicked the hard decisions down the road, which I think creates very real potential for headaches at a pretty crucial point in the season.

What if Sanchez is terrific as a starter?

What if no replacement candidate emerges by mid-season?

Granted, I don’t think it’s anything close to a slam dunk that Sanchez thrives in this new role the way that he has so far this spring — as I wrote last week, big league lefties killed him last season, and the ones he’s mowed down in the Grapefruit League so far aren’t nearly of the quality he’ll be facing once shit gets real.

I also think it’s fair to figure that Drew Hutchison, Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez, a pitcher from outside the organization that they trade for, or perhaps even a Conner Greene, look from afar as though they should be able to step in and fill the gap once Sanchez is asked to shift back to relief.

But what if Sanchez is genuinely carrying this rotation at a critical juncture in the pennant race when the time comes to dial him back? What if he’s merely OK, and yet the club’s depth is tested elsewhere and they simply don’t have the bodies to replace him adequately?

I mean, wasn’t a guy like Jesse Chavez brought in exactly so that he can make spot starts and lengthen the rotation in order to help manage the innings of some of the guys — read: all of them not named RA Dickey — who have never been asked to go 200 innings deep before? Couldn’t Gavin Floyd potentially do the same sort of thing?

It’s not nothing, but Marcus Stroman’s biggest workload as a pro is only 33 innings higher than Sanchez’s: 166.1 innings at AAA and in the majors in 2014, to Sanchez’s 133.1 across three levels that same year.

That’s the difference between the top starter on a team that expects to be playoff-bound and the guy who can’t be allowed to finish out the season in the rotation?

Maybe it is. Or maybe they’re just establishing right now that, if (when?) they make a big trade to add a starter — which is clearly beyond plausible — it’s going to be Sanchez who gets asked to step aside.

That at least makes sense. And it also makes sense to figure that we mostly only hear about the trouble with innings limits when they get messy — think Stephen Strasburg or Matt Harvey — and maybe there was no better way around this. It’s just… it’s… interesting.

The Jays have certainly at least given themselves some flexibility in punting on this decision. I felt a trip to Buffalo might have made the most sense, where Sanchez’s innings could be managed, his secondary stuff further refined, and where the club would have avoided entirely the problem of potentially watching him struggle and needing to be removed from the rotation for the good of the team — a move that could have ended with him in the bullpen early, likely cutting short his career as a starter before really giving it the chance to properly develop.

Such peril still looms under this newly agreed-upon setup, but it’s understandable if the club maybe didn’t think that demoting a guy who has been in the big leagues the last year-and-a-half and has produced superb results all spring would be the right move.

Is what they’ve done here the right move? Only time will tell. But at least it’s a move. And at least we can move on from the what-to-do-with-Sanchez debate. But I suspect only for a little while.

  • Player to Be Named Later

    Well, if we use the bullets-in-the-gun metaphor, maybe the fact that they play so many AL East opponents to start the year played into it. If they believe Sanchez is the best starter among the 5th-starter candidates, and if he’s going to have an innings limit, then let’s not waste his bullets in Buffalo or later in the season when we’re playing the Mariners. I dunno… If he pitches great then they’re going to have a real dilemma. I can’t imagine that, once he’s moved to the pen, they could rev him back up to start in playoffs.

    It’s a long season. Here’s hoping he can prove the doubters wrong!

  • JasonTrent79

    Here’s my issue with the trade scenario. Jays are running against a budget restriction for whatever reason, otherwise they could have signed another starter. If the Jays trade for a starter, they are giving up cost-controlled young players which in turn further handcuffs the budgetary flexibility. If the plan is to add a starter, shouldn’t that have been done in free agency, and spend the extra $$$, knowing that you will save the money on your young players you don’t have to trade away?

    • ErnieWhitt

      You’re right but the caveat is that the guy you end up with as a free agent and the guy you end up with from a trade are not equivalent in terms of their total yearly salary. David Price is a prime example from last season. At the time of the trade, the Tigers had paid roughly 2/3 of Price’s salary ($19.75M). The remaining salary cost to the Jays would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-7M (depending on how they work the dates). That $6-7M wouldn’t get you a whole lot to acquire a player in Free Agency.

      I agree that I don’t love paying for pitching with prospects, but if you care about the quality of the pitcher you get in return, its something you need to consider.

    • Cock Flakes

      I agree but I guess the team has the option of taking on less contract and less years with a mid season trade. I also lets them wait to see if they are in it. But if they want continual success its a hard way to do it.

  • The Craig

    I was with Stoeten on the send him to Buffalo train, except now I’m thinking about what was said in the latest podcast. About not wasting the bullets of a young hard thrower in the minors who also hasn’t been hurt yet. He isn’t going to stay young, cheap and injury free forever so I like the get as much out of him while you can approach the Jays are taking here. Option 2 was send him to the pen to start, which obviously nerfs his chances of returning to the rotation this year and hurts that even more next year. So really if you follow that stream of logic, what other option is there for right now. I would also hope that while he didn’t face any though lefties in spring training, that the jays staff are well aware of the severe splits and have been watching his secondary stuff as the true test of his viability as a starter.

    I have to think that all these baseball people would at this point in the decision process, be looking mostly at his stuff and mechanics. Can he throw that curve for a strike when he needs to. Can he throw the change up against lefties. We’ll find out soon enough but this is also where a guy like Russel Martin might have a big say. If he likes what he sees and feels he can get Sanchez to mix those pitches effectively – you just might have something here.

  • Tuloshyperbaricchamber

    I think every setup has it’s pros and cons and perils. While I understand your thoughts about starting him in Buffalo, that strategy never really seemed to be an option with the Blue Jays brass.

    In order to make Sanchez a starter he needs to start games. If they want to develop him as a future starter he needs to start games. With Buffalo not an option and Sanchez doing so well in spring training and working so hard on his physical strength during the off season it’s easy to see this as the most logical plan for his development and for the Blue Jays in a 2016-win-now-season.

    Because it’s a win now season a lot of fans will be saying – “what if he’s our best starter all year and then we don’t have him in the playoffs!!!”

    You don’t think the Jays have thought about that? There are 162 games between now and then. We’re going to need every win we can get. If Sanchez is wiping out batters for an inning a game in the post season…NAILS! buckle up, it’s going to be a fun ride.

    (and of course we’ll learn quickly how well he pitches against lefties this year.)

  • ErnieWhitt

    Honestly – it’s not the number of times he can get 3 guys out in an inning that hurts a pitcher’s arm. If the Jays are moving towards a truly modern, scientific approach to player health it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there is no innings limit at all for Sanchez. Innings are an arbitrary measure. Pitches thrown is far more meaningful in terms of the strain put on his throwing arm (even then its a meaningless measure when applied to all pitchers equally). You could hypothetically throw 3 pitches per inning. Why should that inning count the same as one in which he throws 30?

    If they are monitoring his shoulder/elbow, monitoring his rest, watching velocity, keeping on top of his mechanics etc., then the number of innings he throws is irrelevant. He’s either tired or not. That can happen at pitch 65 of a start or 130. That can happen at inning 90 or 160 or 220. The Jays should have Sanchez’ health in mind from start 1 through 30 (if he were to make it that far). Whether or not they can accomplish this is another story.. but stating a limit as a hard fast rule doesn’t seem to be the approach that makes sense if they are following the methodology that it seems as though they are.

  • JustinTet

    ” Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily a terrible way to do it, but they seem to have kicked the hard decisions down the road, which I think creates very real potential for headaches at a pretty crucial point in the season.

    What if Sanchez is terrific as a starter”

    I don’t get how that is a problem though. Is it better to not use him as a starter and miss out on his phenomenal performances so that you don’t have to make a tough decision at the end of the year.

    What you view as a headache is, to me, the Jays’ best case scenario. I would love if Sanchez lit it up and forced the Jays to have to make a tough call. That means the Jays are winning games.

  • JustinTet

    Also, isn’t Connor Greene going to have an innings limit this year too? By the time Sanchez hits his, I would imagine Greene will be about ready to be shut down as well.

  • TGreg

    There are options to manage his IP – he may only be allowed to go 5 or 6 innings for the first couple of months; or they could have Sanchez skip a start more often … e.g. have Floyd or Chavez spot start every fourth start of his. Plus, I suspect that he’ll be on the DL for his 15 days as soon as there’s a hint of his first blister appearing.