Blue Jays’ Sanchez proving he belongs in the rotation

May 15, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
May 15, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

Aaron Sanchez has taken his game to another level early on in 2016, and for now at least, has silenced any critics calling for him to be a late-inning reliever long-term

One of the great debates of the offseason, spring training in particular, was how to extract as much value from Aaron Sanchez as possible. He had proven himself over parts of two seasons as a lights out reliever, routinely blowing his fastball by hitters in a much needed set-up role.

In just 11 starts in 2015, the results were very mixed, leaving many to question if a team that is competing now could afford any patience with a developing starter, especially one who flourished in the bullpen.

However, Sanchez was drafted and developed a starter, and had been untouchable in trades in the past as a future rotation piece. He was brought up to the majors and used as a reliever in 2014, but began 2015 in the rotation as most had long expected.

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The Jays decided they needed his arm in the bullpen last season when he returned from injury, and it was hard to argue against that decision. They acquired David Price,  had Marcus Stroman return late in the season, and Marco Estrada unexpectedly thrived as a starter, lessening the need in the rotation. Sanchez hadn’t pitched poorly, but he didn’t exactly dominate as a starter before an oblique injury sidelined him for six weeks. Back in the pen, he was a significant factor in the team returning to the playoffs and defeating the Texas Rangers in the ALDS.

After an utterly dominant spring training as the starter (20 IP, 1.35 ERA, 19 K’s), the Jays had no choice but to give the 23-year-old an opportunity in the rotation, and he’s made the most of it so far. In Sunday’s start, Sanchez again looked the part of a high-ceiling rotation piece, as he has all season, before things unravelled in the 7th. Even including a bad inning or two Sunday, through 8 starts Sanchez has been exactly what the Blue Jays had hoped for.

Prior to Sunday, he was 3-1 with a 2.58 ERA through 45.1 innings (rising to 3.29 over 52 IP). His WHIP is still 1.23, and he has struck out 45 batters against 21 walks. Control was his biggest downfall in 2015 as a starter, so seeing him limit his walks this season is an early reason to be encouraged.

In 2015, Sanchez walked 37 against 42 strikeouts in 66.1 innings as a starter for a K:BB rate of 1.14. Granted he’s only eight starts in, but seeing 45 strikeouts and 21 walks for a 2.14 K:BB is a drastic improvement. His increased control has allowed him to go deeper into games thus far, averaging nearly six and two-thirds innings per start, a half inning up from last season as a starter.

Not only has he pitched well, but he has shown the poise of a much more experienced starter, keeping in mind he’s only had 19 career starts. In 2015, a leadoff hit or walk seemed to frequently lead to the young right-hander looking rattled on the mound, and losing control of the game. In his last start against the Giants, he battled location a bit walking five while allowing just three hits. Instead of folding with runners on, he was able to escape trouble in a couple spots with key strikeouts, and getting crucial ground balls.

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There has been discussion around the idea of limiting his innings this season, but the more that Sanchez continues to prove his value, the harder he makes the decision for the Jays’ brass. It’s difficult to envision him being moved to the bullpen if he continues contributing at or near the level he’s performed at thus far.

It may require a few skipped starts here or there, and an occasional early hook in any potential games that are already in hand, but Sanchez put in a great deal of work to be a starter in 2016 and has proven himself in every facet thus far.

If I were a betting man, I’d guess we may have watched him throw his last pitch as a reliever, save for a situation a la Price last year in the playoffs. If he can continue anywhere near the level he’s produced thus far the debate will finally be put to bed, if it’s not sawing logs already.

"Blue Jays name Aaron Sanchez starter, has innings limit"