No, it’s not a mess: Ross Atkins announces Aaron Sanchez will stay in the rotation (for now)

Aaron Sanchez
Photo credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote a post yesterday in which I declared that the idea of the Blue Jays moving forward, at least for a little while, with a six-man rotation was “totally exactly what they’re doing, isn’t it?”

It turns out that was entirely bang on. 

Ross Atkins flew to join the Jays in Houston today, met with Gibbons and Sanchez and the rest of the rotation, and came away telling reporters that the decision had indeed been made to go to six starters for now, and hopefully for good — presumably for the same basic reasons I laid out. Because Marco Estrada’s ailing back could use extra time off. Because Francisco Liriano needs an opportunity to show what he’s got. And, of course, because Aaron Sanchez in no way should be moved to the bullpen if that is at all avoidable.

So… why am I bothering to write about it again? Well, you see, I also noted in that post that there really wasn’t nearly as much of a disconnect between John Gibbons and the front office over this issue as a lot of people seemed to believe. Though Gibbons on Wednesday had surprised many by saying that the whole situation was being debated, I quoted a Shapiro interview from Tuesday in which he said that they hadn’t yet determined what the right approach would be, “or even definitively…” before trailing off and changing tack.

Gibbons and Shapiro there were essentially saying the same thing – – even if Shapiro was emphatic elsewhere in his interview that Sanchez wouldn’t get to 230 innings pitching straight through October. And while, yes, Shapiro reiterated the common refrain that Sanchez would certainly be moved to the bullpen at some point this season, that line had started to seem in recent weeks to be the club’s attempt at containing the question, rather than a well-defined plan as yet — and rather obviously so (especially in the case of John Gibbons).

And yet the predominant media narrative that I’ve seen and heard in the wake of this announcement is that this was a badly handled mess on the part of the Jays, and that this is some kind of about-face.

Huh?

The front office has taken pains throughout the entire season to make it clear that Sanchez’s situation is fluid. They had never put a specific innings target on moving him to the bullpen — apart from Shapiro this week saying he won’t get to 230 — and have always talked about monitoring things beyond just the accumulation of innings. That has allowed them to be flexible — another point specifically made by Ross Atkins, who in a radio hit I transcribed last week likened it to the way their flexibility about Sanchez’s role in spring training gave him the opportunity to break into the rotation in the first place.

Elsewhere during that same hit Atkins sounded even more open about the possibilities than what we’ve been hearing this week. After explaining how they might use him in the bullpen to minimize the wear on his arm, the GM conceded that there’s also “a lot of upside and a lot of benefit to keeping him on a five-day rotation, starting him and managing him — and maybe it’s not a five day rotation, but managing him as a starter in a more conservative way.”

Maybe that was presented as a little more theoretical than concrete, but I don’t think anyone can say the idea of Sanchez was so outlandish that we have to present this as dangerous indecision or a front office stumbling around unable to get out of its own way.

Is it a mess because it means reporters are having to do their jobs? I don’t get it.

Neither, it seems, does Atkins, as we see in Gregor Chisholm’s transcript of today’s media availability that he awesomely quipped, “Look, there’s no perfect answer, there’s no absolute. It’s almost impossible for us to be right unless we win the World Series and he’s healthy. So let’s shoot for that.”

There was a whole lot else that was fascinating in the transcript, too. For instance — and this is something that is a little bit different, I think — Atkins was effusive about how pleased he would be if Sanchez did get into uncharted waters in terms of his innings jump. Which… yeah! If everything goes fine and he doesn’t hit a wall or show fatigue, that would be a little fucking pleasing.

“What we’re trying not to do is paint ourselves into a corner,” he said. “And we’re also thinking about all of the alternatives. It’s amazing how many ideas have come out of this and they have come from so many different places. The fact that we’re getting closer to September helps. The fact that we will have a player or two with options helps. The fact that our bullpen has corrected and is pitching better, guys are settling into roles, helps. Francisco’s openness [to pitching in any role] helps. We’ll be able to skip starts, we’ll be able to do even more creative things when we get into September. We have all of the math, of course. I know many people have done it. Like I said, we’ll get into an area — hopefully we get into that area. He feels good, he’s recovering well, we’re not seeing fatigue in any way and we get into an area that’s unprecedented. We’re hopeful that happens.”

Aaaand later on he completely nailed it when it comes to why he can’t just think in the now, while also adding some insight into their process here, which doesn’t involve quite as much science as people think — at least not in the broad sense, because there really is no science. (However, on TSN 1050 Radio this afternoon, Scott MacArthur of TSN.ca said that he’s spoken to someone with knowledge of the situation who told him that on a more micro level, Sanchez has been given various tests between starts, and Atkins himself later spoke about tools to use to monitor him, such as “cameras and modern technology from arm speed, to release points, to spin rates, to velocity.”)

“Why we’re talking about this today is because many general managers talk about these thresholds being something that’s hard to surpass,” Atkins explained. “You don’t want to put people in danger zones. You’ve seen them with Strasburg and Harvey; this has occurred before. It’s really just the unknown. There’s nothing concrete, there’s no science to it. It’s a lot of experience, talking to other front offices, talking to other scouts, talking to other players, talking to former players and really trying to do the best thing for this organization and for Aaron moving forward. If we were just to say what is the absolute best thing for us to win this year and this year alone, then we can just roll the dice but no one in baseball makes decisions that way. You’re always thinking about sustained success and the livelihood of young men. We signed up for that from Day 1, that we started working for the Toronto Blue Jays, that we’re here for their futures as well. That’s at the forefront of every decision that we make.”

Not only does that make a whole lot of sense, but ultimately what he said about the way they tried to devise a plan, and what the plan is — so much as there even is one — did as well. And it again gave a whole lot more insight into their thought process than we would have heard if this was happening a year ago.

“We tried to look at it in terms of putting pitchers into groups. Younger pitchers and pitchers who had reached certain thresholds that were not necessarily year to year and back to back, but more about what the largest workload they had and what was the most significant increase in workload. And age was a factor,” Atkins explained. “We tried to cast the biggest net possible yet still make it relevant. Syndergaard had a huge spike. Lester had a huge spike. We’re confident as long as things go well, that he can get to those levels and hopefully, beyond them.

“We want to be thoughtful with him and, really, we’re going to go start-to-start and make sure that fatigue isn’t setting in, recovery is fine,” he continued. “We were feeling pretty confident that the ‘pen was the solution until the recent acquisition and what we’ve been consistent in saying that his recovery and fatigue, or lack thereof, and effectiveness is probably the most important piece of the puzzle.”

Uh… OK, perfect. Right? I mean… that’s pretty much perfect, isn’t it? So… where is the mess in that?

Some might try to spin it that he was definitely going to be sent to the ‘pen and that the front office caved and made a quick turnaround after Gibbons boldly opened the door for him to stay in the rotation, and Russell Martin voiced his displeasure, and because Sanchez himself (who Atkins said thinks of himself as a major league starter) wasn’t entirely on board, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to find what Shapiro and Atkins had been saying all along, and it looks like this decision was well within the boundaries of all that. More importantly, it feels like it’s the right decision.