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Blue Jays: Sanchez still focused only on starting

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“Absolutely I’m thinking starter. They know what I want to do. Everybody in baseball knows what I want to do,” Sanchez told the Toronto Sun.

Aaron Sanchez has shown up to camp in the best shape of his life and is saying and doing all the right things so far in Dunedin. First, reports indicated that he and Marcus Stroman had put in serious time and work at Duke University this offseason, and Sanchez came back 25 pounds heavier.

For his modest frame that could be the type of physical growth that nets the young right-hander some big gains in 2016. For a pitcher with goals including a career high in innings pitched, the offseason conditioning was a welcome sign of determination.

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On Sunday, Sanchez had his first start of the spring and made his first statement for being the 5th member of the rotation. He threw 4.0 scoreless innings allowing only one hit, striking out four and walking one. Granted it wasn’t a fully equipped Tampa Bay Rays lineup, but the fireballer began his 2016 spring exactly as everyone hoped he would.

If the former 2010 first round draft pick didn’t announce his intentions with his performance, he cemented it with his post game comments on Sunday. When asked about his focus this spring, he quickly chimed in with, “Absolutely I’m thinking starter. They know what I want to do. Everybody in baseball knows what I want to do”.

He also added, “I feel a lot stronger out there. I feel like I’m not even trying to throw. It’s more about putting my body in the right position to execute a pitch, and it’s seamless for me out there right now”.

It wasn’t a tirade by any means, but Sanchez seems intent on dismissing any other resolution to his status come opening day, and for now that’s exactly what John Gibbons, Ross Atkins, and Mark Shapiro should be looking for. If he can make the decision an easy one for the Blue Jays brain trust it makes their jobs a little easier, at least for one roster spot. Nobody would be celebrating if Sanchez gave the impression that he was indifferent, or intimidated by the role. He’s making it pretty clear right from the get go.

However, it is very early and history has taught us repeatedly that things can change in a real hurry. Sanchez has looked solid out the gate, but fortunately so have fellow rotation hopefuls Gavin Floyd, Drew Hutchison, and Jesse Chavez. With an obviously short sample size, Floyd has only allowed 5 hits over 8.0 frames with a 3.38 ERA, Hutchison at 4.05 over 6.2, and Chavez at 3.86 over 7 innings.

Spring numbers are tough to gauge, but all 4 have looked strong thus far. What a welcome problem for the Blue Jays to have, one that hasn’t been the case in many seasons.

Potential Impact On His Development

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There is a valid argument that the Blue Jays could be missing out on the true potential of the young arm, and could stunt his growth and potential of eventually becoming a high level starter. He was used in the bullpen out of necessity in 2014, and arguably again in 2015, and while he is extremely effective in that role, his ceiling is indisputably higher as a starter.

There have been several cases like this across baseball in the last decade such as Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Morrow, Neftali Feliz and many more, and few stick as starters once they are bounced around. There are cases of flexible guys like the Jays’ own Jesse Chavez, but few former relievers turn out to be ace-calibre starters. After trading away several high ceiling arms like Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman and others, the Jays need to make sure they maximize the potential of their remaining young arms.

Ramifications of the decision

As stated above, Sanchez has been very clear about his intentions this spring. He wants to be a starter and has made no bones about making that known. It’s the right attitude to have, and if he continues to perform as he did in his first start then it will be very difficult to give the job to anyone else. Floyd and Chavez can also contribute in the bullpen, and Hutchison has options remaining so it’s not as if the Blue Jays can’t make it work, and Sanchez knows that.

As a talented young arm in today’s game, he knows that he can make his greatest contribution to the team in terms of innings as a starter. His ceiling is greater there, and no doubt his agent has mentioned that he’ll be able to command a much heftier salary down the road if he’s had a few 200-inning campaigns. If he’s earned (or feels he has) the opportunity and doesn’t get it, that doesn’t necessarily help his relationship with the team, now or in the future.

He and Marcus Stroman have become very close friends and training partners, and Stroman even spoke out for Sanchez as a starter before camp began, saying, “every day in the gym, our slogan was nine every five, the idea of going nine innings every five days. We weren’t doing two-a-days for him to be a reliever. Everything that we did was to go out there and throw 200 plus (innings)”

Yes, both young hurlers will be professionals regardless of the circumstances, and ultimately a winning team will solve most, if not any, hard feelings. But do the Jays want to risk upsetting two of their arguably most valuable assets? Stroman is already considered the Jays ace as a pre-arbitration eligible arm, as is Sanchez, and both will be massive keys to the success of the franchise going forward. Stroman also seems to thrive on the idea of teaming up with his young friend to take over the world, and even though he seemingly doesn’t need extra motivation, every positive factor is a bonus in Sanchez’s way.

Next: Blue Jays sign second baseman Alexi Casilla

Ultimately the performance and health of each of the viable starting candidates will likely determine the final decisions, but it’s difficult not to dream of Sanchez flourishing as a starter. He’s an immense talent, and if he can continue to develop his secondary pitches there’s no reason he can’t be a very effective starter. However, the Jays are as much of a “win-now” team as they’ve ever been, and they can’t afford to squander the window of opportunity for the sake of hard feelings.

Here’s hoping Sanchez keeps putting up performances like 4 innings, 4 k, 1 H when he starts, and it should likely be a moot point come April 3rd.

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