Former Blue Jays first-round pick, All-Star begins Toronto comeback with minor-league deal

He’s baaaaaaack!
ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Four
ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Four / Tom Szczerbowski/GettyImages

The Blue Jays have been turning over rocks looking for minor-league pitching depth in the past week, with Chad Green, Yariel Rodríguez, Bowden Francis and top prospect Ricky Tiedemann all on the injured list, and the continued struggles of previously reliable Erik Swanson.

As the big league bullpen outside of Yimi García continues to struggle, Toronto traded for Joel Kuhnel from the Houston Astros for cash, and signed free agent Beau Sulser to a minor league contract so he could start for the Buffalo Bisons on Sunday. That comes on the heels of trades that moved both Wes Parsons and Mitch White out of town.

The latest rock turned up former Blue Jay first round pick and All-Star Aaron Sanchez, who appears to have signed a non-roster, minor-league deal to return to the organization.

The 34th overall pick out of Barstow High School in Barstow, California in the 2010 amateur draft, Sanchez is now a 31-year-old journeyman trying to keep his major league dream alive. He hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2022, when he posted a 3-4 record with a 6.60 ERA across 60 innings for the Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins.

That’s a far cry from his debut season in 2014, when he went 2-2 with a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings setting up closer Casey Janssen, and then a swing role in 2015 when he set up rookie closer Roberto Osuna, and went 7-6, with a 3.22 ERA in 41 games, including 11 starts, and 92.1 innings.

In fact, over his first three years with the Jays, he went 24-10 with a 2.86 ERA in 95 games, including 41 starts, covering 317.1 innings. That stretch culminated in an oustanding 2016 season, when he went 15-2 with an AL leading 3.00 ERA for qualified starters that year over a career high 30 starts and 192 innings. He was selected to the All-Star game that July, and finished 7th in AL Cy Young voting.

Unfortunately, the wheels fell off after that; he only made 8 starts in 2017 before suffering a series of nagging injuries, including blisters and broken finger nails. That made it hard for him to throw his most effective pitches, a once devastating curveball that averaged 79-80mph in 2015-2016, and a sinker that averaged 98mph in relief in 2014, and was in the 95-96mph range in 2015-16.

His sinker velocity was down to 92mph in 2022, and he only threw it 41% of the time that year compared to 56% in his career year in 2016. The curveball was still at 79mph, but its usage rate was up to 28%, from only 16% in 2016.

Sanchez spent the 2023 season in Triple-A between the Minnesota and Arizona systems. It wasn’t pretty; he tossed 89.1 innings with a 5.54 ERA, with a 16.1% strikeout rate while walking 6.3 batters per nine innings, before being released by the Reno Aces last August.

Given the pitching depth concerns in Toronto, the front office is clearly dumpster diving again in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Whether the 2024 version of Sanchez can recapture some of that 2015-2016 magic remains to be seen, but it looks like he’ll get a chance to work his way back after presumably reporting to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons in the next few weeks. Let’s hope he’s healthy!