Aaron Sanchez didn't mince words about his future Sunday afternoon after finishing his four-inning shutout start against the Rays.
"You don't think I'm thinking starter?" Sanchez said to a group of reporter gathered around his stall. "Absolutely I'm thinking starter. They know what I want to do. Everybody in baseball knows what I want to do."
Really, why wouldn't he be a starter? In nine innings this spring, Sanchez has commanded a 2.00 ERA with 10 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.11. Maybe spring training numbers aren't your thing and that's okay. In 92.1 innings last season, Sanchez maintained a 3.22 ERA and 0.3 WAR, building on his rookie season where he had a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings pitched.
No doubt, Sanchez has been a valued presence in the Jays bullpen during the two seasons since he's arrived. At 23 years old though, it's time Sanchez is given a chance to succeed long-term in the rotation.
The most obvious reason for giving Sanchez the ball every fifth day is, well, he deserves it. As the story goes, Sanchez struggled initially with his fastball command when starting last year, holding a walk rate of 16.1 per cent in the months of March and April. But, similar to the rest of his metrics, that improved with the more experience he gained starting games. In May, that walk rate fell to 13.9 per cent with his ERA dropping to 3.29 in 38.1 innings pitched. While his walk rate was still higher than it should be for an everyday starter, improvement was made nonetheless. In June, Sanchez was at his best. In his only start, he hurled a stunning eight innings, allowing one run on six hits while striking out three and not walking a soul.
Unfortunately Sanchez was sidelined after the start with a latissimus dorsi injury and by the time he returned, David Price was in the rotation. At that point, what could he have possibly done? Asked Price to step aside? No. Sanchez stepped in line and did what he could to help the team win. In 26.1 innings of relief, Sanchez maintained a 2.39 ERA. In the 7.1 innings pitched during the postseason run, he didn't allow a single earned run.
Now, that type of success may lead some to say that he should remain in the bullpen, which couldn't possibly be a more illogical thought. For starters, his former role is nearly non-existent with the addition of Drew Storen at the back end of the bullpen. In all likelihood, innings eight and nine are going to be reserved for either Storen or Roberto Osuna, last year's closer, who may see an innings bump this season with the Jays electing to use him as a multi-inning reliever.
That would likely leave the seventh inning for Brett Cecil who is going into his contract year and also had a strong showing in 2015. In 54.1 innings pitched, he maintained an impressive 2.48 ERA with nearly twice the strikeout rate of Sanchez, meaning that he would be less likely to allow balls put in play where runs can come in a variety of formats. This also fails to mention that Cecil pitched in higher leverage situations than Sanchez last year per Fangraphs, supporting the idea of using Cecil instead of Sanchez in the seventh inning or high leverage situations this season.
Following this chain of thought, that would leave Aaron Sanchez, the 23 year old, as the sixth inning guy. Now, it's not as if this role would be cemented in. Players are notoriously unpredictable and anything can happen, but it's hard to imagine Sanchez getting enough work with a 6th-7th inning role to build up his innings to become a starter in the next few years as the Jays say they intend him to be.
This is without mentioning that Sanchez added 25 pounds to his frame this offseason, working out with teammate Marcus Stroman. He claims it helps him repeat his delivery and whether or not that's true for most of us, it seems to hold true for the young right-hander thus far.
No doubt, if you're an avid Blue Jays fan and you've watched any MLB preview shows, listened to podcasts or read magazine previews, the talk is about how the Jays' weak spot will be the rotation this season. But it doesn't have to be. Aaron Sanchez can start and he can start right away. The old adage about relievers being failed starters doesn't hold true with Sanchez. In the short time he was given to be a starter, he wasn't ace-calibre, but he wasn't a complete failure either.
Given the competition with teammates Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez for the fifth spot in the rotation, it may not be Sanchez who gets the spot outright to start the season, especially given that the Jays have two off-days in the first two weeks. That could give Sanchez the chance to go down to Buffalo, collect a start or two, and either return to the rotation when needed or stay in Buffalo until a spot inevitably opens up for him due to injury or lack of performance.
Conversely, the Jays could let him rot in the 'pen. Using him sparingly in the 6th-7th inning and hoping to bring him in the rotation later could result in a longer process of having to re-stretch out his arm to handle the workload--an idea that no doubt would put additional strain on the youngster's body.
There's no question what Aaron Sanchez thinks of himself though and lucky for him, he has the the backing of the Jays new ace and his friend Stroman.
"He's a starter, yeah," Stroman told reporters in Toronto gathered for the Winter Tour event. "Everything we did this year was for that. We didn't workout twice a day for two months for him to be a reliever."
Given his spring record, and improved physical shape, I'd say he's ready. Whether he's given his shot or not; that's another story.