Blue Jays net pitching value with Aaron Sanchez starting


The Blue Jays appear set to open spring training with Aaron Sanchez stretched out as a starter. If he sticks, Toronto’s pitching staff takes on a new set of variables

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons suggested recently that Aaron Sanchez could enter Spring Training in Dunedin as a starting pitcher, a move that fits logically enough in the short and long term. His ceiling in the fifth rotation spot exceeds that of Jesse Chavez and arguably tops Drew Hutchison‘s, which means that stretching Sanchez out conceivably gives Toronto six or more MLB-calibre starting arms.

It’s also much simpler for Sanchez to go from starter to reliever in the early stages of 2016 than reliever to starter, so this decision represents the proper ‘Point A’. The greatest outcome would be the organization choosing a hard role and dedicating to it, but the depth of this rotation and bullpen don’t allow for such a luxury right now.

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Barring the addition of a number three starter or better, Sanchez would enter a competition with Hutchison, Chavez and any newcomer for that fifth job. It won’t be a scenario where the best arm simply wins, though, as Toronto will need to take stock of the net picture. Essentially, Sanchez may need to win the competition by more than someone else would have to.

If Sanchez were to earn the job, it would most likely relegate Jesse Chavez to a long-man role out of the pen that he’s not particularly well suited for. Sure, he’d chew innings when needed, but the quality of those innings may not exceed replacement level. This scenario would also see Hutchison starting 2016 with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, a result that could be best for his long-term development regardless. Assuming for a moment that Chavez wins that fifth job, though, the Blue Jays would not be forced to create a hole in the back end of their bullpen by moving Sanchez.

Two factors will weigh into this decision:

  1. The net difference in talent and ceiling between Sanchez and his replacement in the role of fifth starting pitcher.
  2. The net difference in talent and ceiling between Sanchez and his replacement in the role of set-up man / back end righty.

If the net difference of variable number one outweighs that of number two, he sticks in the rotation (and vice versa). While filling the back end role in the bullpen would require more work from the roster’s current state, it could be done with relative ease. A $3 million bullpen arm with Sanchez in the rotation could easily outperform a $3 million starter with Sanchez in the bullpen. It’s a game of risk on either end of the conversation, though.

Sanchez did shine as a reliever in 2015, but his max-ceiling impact there is not irreplaceable. Over 30 appearances he posted a 2.39 ERA while holding opponents to a .467 OPS. His K/9 of 6.5 still isn’t in the neighborhood of what it could be, but much of that is counterbalanced by his ability to avoid the home run ball in that role and keep balls on the ground.

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The numbers weren’t as appealing as a starter, but the potential he showed prior to injury was tantalizing. Sanchez averaged 6.0 innings across 11 starts, good for a 3.55 ERA. His WHIP, K/9, HR/9 and opponent’s OPS were all less appealing than his relief numbers, but the righty began to round a corner in his final four starts. His last start, on June 5th against the Astros, saw Sanchez throw 8.0 innings, allowing just one earned run on six hits.

Unless Sanchez is afforded the opportunity to work consistently as a starter, he won’t have the chance to develop his secondary pitches to the point that is necessary. This is critical. Some also worry about his durability in the role, but therein lies the value of the depth he’d be pushing behind him.

Unfortunately, he’s largely at the mercy of roster need. His presence alongside Brett Cecil and Roberto Osuna in the bullpen gives Toronto management a strong enough base (crutch?) to lean on as they seek patchwork for the remaining vacancies, so even if Sanchez stretches out in the spring, he’ll need some help from the arms around him.