Blue Jays: Al Leiter an example of why we can’t give up on Aaron Sanchez

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 21: Aaron Sanchez #41 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on June 21, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 21: Aaron Sanchez #41 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on June 21, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

It’s been a while since we saw Aaron Sanchez dominate on the mound the way he did early in his career. The 24-year-old sported a 4.89ERA last season while only pitching for 105 innings for the Blue Jays in what most would consider a down year for the young flamethrower.

Bad luck instead of blisters were the culprit in 2018, with Aaron Sanchez sustaining a bruised right index finger due to a suitcase accident, causing him to miss over two months of the season.

It’s hard to determine how 2019 will play out for Sanchez and the Blue Jays, but there are reasons to believe that he can still turn it around and have the dominant career that scouts foresaw for him not too long ago.

To get an idea, one should look no further than former Blue Jays pitcher Al Leiter.

In the beginning of the 1989 season, the New York Yankees were starting to tire of the oft-injured Leiter, who had only thrown 57 innings a year prior due to blister issues on his pitching hand.  They traded Leiter to the Toronto Blue Jays for an outfielder by the name of Jesse Barfield.

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Leiter would not turn his career around until his last season of seven with the Jays, averaging just over 59 innings per season in his time in Toronto. In his last year with the Jays the then 29-year-old had finally pulled it together posting 183 innings with a 3.64 ERA.

Something had changed in the southpaw, with both his innings totals increasing, while lowering his ERA. He would go on to win 16 games the next year with the Marlins posting a 2.93 ERA pitching in a career-high 215 innings while being named to the All-star team.

So how did Leiter turn it all around?

The southpaw found magic in a bottle in a loosely described “exotic liniment” and used that throughout the rest of his career to help control the blister problems. Leiter was seen giving tips to Sanchez last season before a game, a nice gesture from the former Blue Jay and current Yankee’s broadcaster.

So what does it all mean?

It means we should not be so quick to give up on Aaron Sanchez. Even with his injury baggage and a rebuild fully underway, pitchers who can throw 96 MPH with movement do not grow on tree’s, and he’s only 24 years old.  Al Leiter did not post impressive numbers until he was 29 years old, and he did not have the promising start numbers wise that Aaron Sanchez has had in his career.

Leiter’s best season before his 24th birthday came in his second in 1988 going 4-4 with a 3.92 ERA over 57 innings. By contrast, Aaron Sanchez best season before 24 years old had him go 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA over 192 innings. Very different numbers for two players who had struggles early in their careers.

Sanchez does not become a free agent until the 2021 season giving the Blue Jays a full two seasons to see if he can turn it around. Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith recently reported that the Blue Jays will be “Thoughtful about Sanchez’s workload for the upcoming season”.

This possibly means that the Blue Jays will look to start him in the rotation, see how his finger responds to the rigours of being a starter, and back off if there is any sign of an issue. If there are problems with his finger, the Blue Jays could decide to move him to the bullpen in an attempt to limit his innings and finger trauma, and raise his potential as a trade chip.

However, I believe that would be a mistake. Aaron Sanchez, like Al Leiter before him, will likely overcome the blister issues that have plagued his young career and go on to pitch successfully. It would be foolhardy to cut loose a pitcher with such potential after a down year, gaining likely only fringe prospects in return when we have both the time and motivation to see his struggles through.

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If Sanchez can return to form this season or next and become the pitcher he was again in 2016, he would be worth so much more to the franchise than the paltry offers I am sure they are currently receiving for him.  Do the Blue Jays really want to re-live the experience of cutting loose a player with great talent and potential for little to no gain like they did in 2002 with a young Chris Carpenter? Here’s hoping they keep Leiter’s late resurgence in mind, and hopefully will find the same success staying healthy as his career progresses.