Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season preview: Aaron Sanchez


Following two seasons of bullpen domination, Aaron Sanchez will be looking to establish himself as the force in the rotation that the Blue Jays predicted he would be.

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Aaron Sanchez began his career as a prototypical Alex Anthopoulos pick: a tall, lanky, athletic power right-hander with a huge ceiling. As a first round pick (34th overall in 2010) Sanchez has always been viewed as a future stud in the rotation, but that isn’t how things have shaked out so far.

After making his debut on July 23rd, 2014 with 2 perfect innings against the Boston Red Sox, Sanchez went on to post a spectacular season out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays. He got into 24 games, pitching 33 innings, finishing the season with a stellar ERA of 1.09 and an out-of-this-world ERA+ of 351.

And while the Blue Jays committed to using Sanchez in the rotation in 2015, those plans got changed when Sanchez was injured. Upon his return, he continued to be the shutdown reliever he had been the previous year.

2015 Production Recap

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Aaron Sanchez began the year as one of the Blue Jays starting pitchers, and along with Daniel Norris, kept Marco Estrada in the bullpen to open the year. While he was wild and unpredictable to begin with, he still managed to remain surprisingly effective, and seemed to reduce his “wild ways” start by start as it went on.

Unfortunately, June 5th would be his last start as injury reared its ugly head. After missing about a month and a half, Sanchez returned to the mound on July 25th, but this time back as a reliever.

His numbers as a starter were quite respectable (and definitely something to build off moving forward), pitching 11 starts (66 innings) of 3.55 ERA ball. Although his peripherals like K/9 and BB/9 were quite scary (5.73 and 5.05 respectively), and other metrics like FIP weren’t so kind on him (5.21).

Once he returned to the pen though, he truly began to shine again. He would go on to pitch in 30 more games (including the playoffs) as a reliever, registering a 2.39 ERA (bring his career ERA as a reliever to 1.67) and bringing in a much more respectable FIP of 3.10

2016 Role and Steamer Projection

Sanchez comes into the 2016 season with just as uncertain a role as he went into last year, a virtual toss-up between the rotation and bullpen. The same argument remains for both sides, that Sanchez provides more long term value to the Blue Jays as a starter but he may be more valuable to the team in the now as an ace out of the pen.

Although, unlike last season, there is a little more certainty in both those departments with the Blue Jays acquisitions of J.A Happ, Jesse Chavez and Drew Storen, among others.

Steamer projections seems to have him pegged as a reliever who makes the occasional spot start, as he’s projected to pitch in 60 games (5 starts) with an ERA of 4.04 but rising peripherals (7.50 K/9 and 4.10 BB/9).

And while these numbers could be very different should he make more consistent starts, they are still quite respectable numbers for just one piece of a rather deep bullpen picture.

What could go wrong?

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Realistically, a lot could go wrong. To begin with, while it wouldn’t be a true failure by any means, Sanchez could fail to reach his personal goal of being a rotation stud.

Beyond that, if Sanchez continues to put up dangerous peripheral numbers, things could fall apart very quickly. He will need to cut down on his walks if he wishes to remain as dominant as he has been, and while he seems to live off his outstanding groundball tendencies, he could stand to post some better strikeout numbers.

At the same time, Sanchez could start the year in the rotation. And if that unravels on him, it is very possible those struggles could follow him to the pen, effectively tearing apart his game for the season at hand.

What could go right?

Aaron Sanchez could become everything he is supposed to be. He could take his rightful spot in the rotation and become a star. With his ability to generate tons of ground balls, as long as he can cut down on his walks, he has the potential to keep his pitch count low allowing him to consistently pitch effectively deep into his starts.

Even if he doesn’t make the cut in rotation, he could still find lots of success as a reliever. While he wouldn’t be relied on so heavily as the last two years, as the Blue Jays now have other options like Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen and Brett Cecil, he could easily add a new wrinkle too all of that.

With him and potentially Osuna being viewed as starters in the long term, they could both be considered to go multiple innings out of the pen, being brought in to a variety of high leverage situations. This would free up Storen and Cecil as more traditional back of the bullpen guys.

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The Bottom Line

All in all, 2016 could definitely be seen as a huge make or break developmental year for Aaron Sanchez. With a third straight year in the pen, his development as a starting pitcher could be seriously impinged.

Committing to that third year may very well be committing to Sanchez as a career reliever. This may be a bit early to define who he is, but in what sort of role Sanchez pitches in 2016 could very well have serious ramifications on who Sanchez becomes later in his career.