The Toronto Blue Jays bullpen has come a long way since opening day in April. Brett Cecil was making a mess of the closer’s role while Roberto Osuna was the unknown, surprise commodity towards the bottom of the roster. Aaron Sanchez was trying to establish himself in the rotation. Those three have since changed jobs, and with the influx of LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, they’ve emerged as a top unit in the A.L. If the Blue Jays plan on pushing for a World Series, Sanchez needs to star.
Sanchez enters these playoffs as my number one X-factor on the roster because his potential impact out of the bullpen is so immense, but his September struggles have given us pause. From disaster to dominance, Sanchez could fall anywhere in between. Here’s a look at the players ranked from five to two on the list…
5. The boom-or-bust Justin Smoak
4. Toronto’s pinch-run threat, Dalton Pompey
3. Knuckleball, take the wheel. It’s R.A. Dickey
2. How’s he feeling? Troy Tulowitzki
After being moved into a bullpen role following his injury, Sanchez has recorded a 2.39 ERA and, for the most part, solidified an elite one-two punch at the back end of this bullpen. Then, the calendar turned to September.
In Sanchez’s first 8 games of the month, he allowed 11 hits and 5 earned runs over 6.1 innings, walking 5 batters and striking out just three. Hitters were not fooled, and he seemed to briefly regress into the same issue that plagued him early as a starter: walks. Sanchez has the raw stuff to succeed inside the strike zone, but all too often his fastball finishes high or is taken out of the zone by his natural tailing or sinking movement.
Then Sanchez did a 180, again. His last 5 games of the season saw the right-hander retire 13 straight batters, striking out five and not allowing a single hit. Will Sanchez continue in this positive direction, or will the pendulum continue to swing?
One major stumbling block has been facing left-handed hitters, who have produced an .878 OPS off Sanchez in 2015 compared to a .435 OPS against righties. This is worrying against a lefty-heavy lineup in the Texas Rangers, and may force John Gibbons to be a little more selective with his late bullpen usage. Doing this would eliminate Sanchez from being the automatic three-out man in the 8th, but playoff baseball is much more matchup-reliant.
Sanchez has shown the ability to be unhittable in streaks, though, both in 2014 and at points throughout this season. Toronto’s offense has the necessary power to provide their starter with a lead, but free base runners and inconsistency from the later-inning relievers could harpoon their playoff hopes. There’s a lot of pressure on Sanchez’s shoulders beginning Thursday, and if he stands tall, he could be the playoff performer Toronto needs.