We finally made it – the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects list is now officially complete. There’s no big surprise who are number one prospect is – for the second year in a row the crown goes to right-handed pitcher Aaron Sanchez.
Our timing to unveil Sanchez as the Jays’ top prospect is much better than last year when he was pitching poorly and his stock was possibly at an all-time low. This time around he’s coming off a terrific major league spring training where his strong play was noticed by fans, management and even opponents.
Name: Aaron Sanchez
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Date of Birth: 7/1/1992 (21)
Acquired: Supplemental first round pick in 2010 draft ($775,000 USD)
High School: Barstow HS (Barstow, CA)
College: None (Had commitment to Oregon)
Height/Weight: 6’4″/200 lbs.
Awards and Accomplishments:
- Pre-2014: Rated #32 prospect by Baseball America
- Pre-2014: Rated #31 prospect by Baseball Prospectus
- Pre-2014: Rated #23 prospect by MLB.com
- Rated Blue Jays #1 prospect by Baseball America
- Rated Blue Jays #2 prospect by Baseball Prospectus
- Rated Blue Jays #1 prospect by FanGraphs
- Rated #10 prospect in the 2013 Florida State League by Baseball America
- Named to 2013 Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game
Stats and Analysis:
Sanchez had a bit of an up and down campaign in 2013 but finished the season on a strong note, which carried into his first major league spring training this year with the Blue Jays.
The lone player left in the Blue Jays system from the infamous “Lansing Three“, Sanchez was looking to build on the success he found pitching in the Class A Midwest League during 2012. He posted a 2.49 ERA that season and struck out nearly 10 batters per nine but struggled with control, which led to him walking more than half as many as he K’d. When he was assigned to the High-A Dunedin Blue Jays to start 2013, the hope was he would take strides to clean up his control by learning to harness his nasty stuff.
He was basically unhittable the first six weeks of the season and was holding opponents to a .166 batting average (and 9.5% walk rate) in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Florida State League. However he experienced shoulder discomfort in a start on May 18th, which led to him missing more than a month of the season.
When he returned to the D-Jays he was handled with care and his innings were limited for his next few starts. It was also around this time people (Keith Law of ESPN in particular) began pointing out that Sanchez had changed his delivery and introduced a sinker into his repertoire. We’ll get more into the delivery and pitch repertoire later on but Law made several fans in Toronto nervous after he said “Sanchez’s delivery has gone backwards in the past year.”
It was also believed that the usage of the sinker possibly led to a blister in early August but that issue proved minor as it didn’t cause him to miss any time.
Sanchez results at the end of the minor league season were a bit of a mixed bag compared to 2012. His walk rate declined slightly (13.5% to 11.1%) but so did his strikeouts (25.7% to 20.8%). Opponents batted around the same miserable Mendoza mark in both 2012 and 2013 and his SO/BB rate (1.90 to 1.88) and FIP (3.41 to 3.63) were very similar in both season as well.
As Charlie Caskey pointed out last year, that was part of the problem. Many people were expecting to see Sanchez take a huge leap forward but that unfortunately didn’t happen during the minor league season.
He closed out the year in the Arizona Fall League and despite still struggling with control (4.24 BB/9) he was impressive against the best competition he had faced to date. In 23.1 innings he allowed only three earned runs and held opponents to a .151 batting average in the hitter-friendly desert environment. His strong play earned him the starting nod in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game.
Long and lanky, the first thing you’ll notice about Sanchez’s delivery is how easily the ball explodes out of his hand. He never looks like he’s throwing at max effort even when he’s touching 96 MPH on the radar gun. The ball comes out of a 3/4 arm slot in what looks like a smooth, repeatable action.
As noted by Law, Sanchez has a “shorter-than-ever stride and a very upright release that causes his fastball to stay up and hurts his command of all pitches.” He goes on to explain “An upright torso at release is also correlated with higher risk of arm injuries, so it’s something the Jays and Sanchez need to try to correct.”
I’m conflicted because I’m definitely no expert when it comes to pitching mechanics. He doesn’t have the same explosive kinetic movement towards the plate that Marcus Stroman does but his balance and posture do look great. I’m not overly worried about his delivery but others outside of Law have pointed out that it’s a concern.
Pitch Arsenal Breakdown
Sanchez throws his fastball anywhere from 90-96 MPH, usually working 93-95 (often closer to 95) with heavy arm side run. Justin Jay always tells me that Sanchez commands his heater better when throwing to the right side of the plate. His command in general is below average but I’m convinced part of the reason he doesn’t always know where it’s going is because it has so much movement. Regardless, it’s a 70 grade weapon (or plus-plus) and as you probably witnessed during spring training is already ready to take on major league hitters..
His curveball is a knockout offering that he throws in the low-80s with sharp, late break. He throws it hard but doesn’t always finish on top of the ball and still needs to refine his command to become more consistent. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus also states Sanchez’s curve “can lack snap/get slurvy” at times. However it’s another potential plus or better offering that is his primary “out” pitch.
Sanchez’s changeup is still too firm according to Parks’ account but exhibits outstanding arm side fade, which flashes plus at times. He’s still gaining feel for the pitch but, combined with his outstanding arm action, it could be a third plus weapon in his stacked arsenal.
Gregor Chisholm of BlueJays.com has noted that Sanchez is throwing a sinker this spring (calling it his go-to pitch) but I’m not sure if it’s any different from his fastball, which is labelled a four-seamer but is more like a two-seamer, which is very similar to a sinker. PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball lists 17 sinkers from the Arizona Fall League but I’m not sure if they are just fastballs with insane movement or if he’s actually gripping the ball differently to explicitly throw a more sinking fastball.
Risk, Outlook and ETA
Blue Jays play-by-play announcer Buck Martinez recently suggested Sanchez should break camp in the major league rotation but as we knew all along that was never going to be in the cards. His control and command still need work as he allowed six baserunners in the 12.1 innings he pitched for the Jays this spring. He will start the season with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
The problems pointed out by Law above about Sanchez’s delivery might make the injury risk a bit higher for the young pitcher. He did have the shoulder issue as well last year but has not experienced any further issues since returning.
Sanchez pitched 109.2 innings last year (86.1 at High-A, 23.1 in AFL) and the expectation is he’ll see his innings increased by 20% this year. That would put him in line to pitch about 130 to maybe 140 innings in 2014 and would be able to go 160+ by 2015.
I’d love to see Sanchez get called up to the Blue Jays when rosters open up in September this year but if he doesn’t miss any time there’s a good chance he hits his innings cap by then. However, if he is finally able to close the gap between his raw ability and his results in 2014, there’s a very good chance he’ll be in a Blue Jays uniform at some point in 2015, maybe even right out of spring training. Closer to June is probably more likely but if he continues to pitch well I’m sure the Jays’ brass will feel the pressure to break camp with Sanchez in 2015.
He projects to eventually become a frontline starter but he still has a ways to go before that becomes a reality. Sharpening up his command and control will be a primary focus for Sanchez in 2014 but if he makes significant strides in those areas the sky remains the limit for the last of the Lansing Three.