Lott: The Blue Jays roll the dice again, demoting Cy Young candidate Aaron Sanchez to Dunedin

Aaron Sanchez
Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND – In the sparkle of a sunny Sunday morning in Cleveland, the Blue Jays turned a new page in the Aaron Sanchez narrative, and they tried their best to spin all the pieces into a neat narrative.

Selfless young man that he is, Sanchez readily accepts an option to the minor leagues – and a pay cut ­– in the midst of a breakthrough season that has pushed his workload into uncharted territory. His 10-day break in Florida allows him to skip a start and benefit from extra rest. The Blue Jays gain vital roster flexibility during his time away.

No matter how the Blue Jays parse the move, it remains a roll of the dice. After two turns through the new six-man rotation, they are reverting to a five-man plan and hoping Sanchez, their best pitcher, can promptly return to form when he makes his next start on August 31st in Baltimore.

And when he comes back, no one can say for sure how many pitchers will fill the rotation, nor for how long. 

“It’s not easy,” manager John Gibbons said of the decision, which was made before Sanchez lasted four innings against Cleveland on Saturday night. “Nobody wants to do it. We hope we’re doing the right thing. We think we are. And he’s on board with it. I don’t think he necessarily loves it.”

Sanchez: “There’s no hard feelings … I’ve got no problem with it.”

I asked general manager Ross Atkins whether he can remember a team sending a Cy Young candidate to the minors in the midst of a tight battle for a playoff berth.

“No,” he replied. “Haven’t seen that one before. Again, I’m really impressed with Aaron, being in the hunt for a Cy Young, being in the middle of a pennant race, and his willingness to do this is a testament to how he was raised and the kind of person he is.”

If there is skepticism about whether this ever-evolving scheme will work, it should be noted that so far, it has worked pretty well.

The Jays backed away from their original plan to send Sanchez to the bullpen in August, keeping him and his sub-3.00 ERA in the rotation by acquiring Francisco Liriano and going to a six-man cycle. Liriano has pitched better than he was pitching in Pittsburgh. Sanchez made two starts on six days’ rest, one good, and one not so good, primarily due to a botched double-play on Saturday night.

Even if he’d logged seven shutout  innings on Saturday, he would have been optioned on Sunday, although he didn’t necessarily know that, Atkins said.

“We’ve talked about the idea of doing this from day one of going to a six-man rotation,” Atkins said. “But it wasn’t ‘til this morning that we said this is what we want to do, because we wanted him to focus on pitching. The concept had been discussed with him, but it wasn’t finalized until this morning.”

When Sanchez met with reporters, he adopted a team-first tone. It sounded sincere.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning ballgames,” he said. “And if I’m just going to be sitting here knowing that they’re going to skip my start, why don’t we bring somebody up to help continue to win ballgames? That’s the stand we took.

“Obviously it’s not ideal but it’s something that was discussed and it just so happened to be after last night’s start. There’s no hard feelings. Hopefully we continue winning. This is an important part of our season and if adding someone to the roster gives us the best chance to win that night, then so be it.”

His roster spot, for the moment, goes to Aaron Loup, called up from Buffalo to reinforce the bullpen. Kevin Pillar is due back from the DL in a few days, Jose Bautista possibly by the end of the week. The temporary absence of Sanchez will make it easier for the Jays to effect roster ebb and flow over the next while.

Sanchez has been assigned to Class A Dunedin. That also happens to be home base for the Blue Jays high-performance staff, so he’ll have expert supervision as he continues his regular conditioning routine, which will include bullpen sessions. Atkins says he does not expect Sanchez to pitch in any games for Dunedin.

The pay hit amounts to about $27,000, based on the difference between his big-league salary – a bargain-basement $517,800 – and his minor-league pay. Atkins and Gibbons heaped praises on Sanchez for his altruism. Gibbons also made the obvious point that Sanchez, perhaps sooner than later, will see a contract that makes $27,000 look like chump change.

When Sanchez returns to the rotation, the rotation plans will remain fluid, Gibbons said. The Blue Jays will continue to look for ways to give him extra rest. He has thrown 156.1 innings, 23 more than his previous season-high.

“As we’ve said the whole time, I think what we’ll do is go start by start and work off of Aaron and do what’s best for him and what’s best for the team,” Atkins said.

I asked Gibbons whether he has noticed any diminution of Sanchez’s effectiveness in recent starts.

“No,” the manager replied. “(Saturday) night in particular I think he was really good. I’m sitting over there thinking this is maybe one of those dream nights, the way it started.”

Sanchez sailed through three innings, then threw 40 pitches in the fourth and gave up five runs, four of which were earned. He was done after 77 pitches.

“I thought he was as good last night early on as I’ve seen him, against a good-hitting club,” Gibbons said. “I hadn’t seen any effects.”

It would not have mattered whether Sanchez had one of those dream nights against the Indians. He still would have been a Dunedin Blue Jay on Sunday.

If he returns as a bulwark of the rotation for September and beyond, then the Blue Jays will have pulled off an extraordinary  – and perhaps unprecedented – feat of derring-do.