Oh, Spring Training. A time of mascot antics, stories about players in the best shape of their lives, and hot takes for the sake of hot takes. On Sunday, the latter was fulfilled by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner, as he argued that the Jays should use Aaron Sanchez solely as a relief pitcher in 2016. Given that prior to Sunday the conventional wisdom was that Sanchez would assuredly be in the rotation, Wilner’s comments created a heated discussion. In his piece, he makes the very salient point that “we don’t know what Sanchez is as a starter. Is he the guy with the 2.57 ERA over his last four starts, the one who stopped walking people, or is he the guy who struggled with his command and couldn’t get deep into games earlier in the season?”
Sanchez is risky as a starter, but we already know that he’s fairly reliable as a reliever. Wilner argues that the reliability is what is needed for a team in contention. Conversely, on Twitter, many have argued that the risk is precisely what the Jays need to set themselves apart. Or, more specifically, that the the Jays need to try Sanchez in the major league rotation soon as to not waste him.
Now, what if I told you that they’re both mostly wrong?
In past years, the Jays needed to try and bet on upside in the rotation in order to succeed (See: Norris, Daniel, and Boyd, Matt). However, this season, that’s not true at all. Without even counting Aaron Sanchez, the Jays have seven starters that could easily slot into a rotation: Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Hutchison. Do any of the latter three have as much upside as Aaron Sanchez in the long term? Probably not. Can they pitch to a similar or better ERA in 2016? Probably.
That’s the first point against Sanchez as a starter. Even if he’s 30 percent better than he was the last time he was in the rotation, that’s still not good enough. Sure, Sanchez put up a 3.55 ERA in the role last season, but that was on the back of roughly equal strikeout (15.0 percent) and walk (13.2 percent) rates. In history, there are no pitchers who’ve consistently survived on that little split between walks and strikeouts – no matter how high their ground ball rates may have been.
Sanchez’s supporters would likely argue that he isn’t the same pitcher that we saw at the beginning of last season. They would, as Wilner notes, point out that Sanchez had a 2.57 ERA over his last four starts. Or perhaps they’ll offer up a picture of the new, bulked up Sanchez as some evidence that he’s ‘ready to start’. He might very well be, but when there are other alternatives, why throw him in to the AL East fire? They don’t have to.
That argument may lead you to believe that Sanchez should be in the bullpen instead, right? Au contraire, mon ami. In spite of my affliction towards disdain for relievers who don’t fit the high-strikeout mold, I’d be remiss to suggest that Aaron Sanchez isn’t an elite reliever. Since 2014, among relievers with at least 50 IP, Sanchez’s 1.67 ERA ranks fifth in baseball – ahead of big-dollar guys like Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman. That being said, the Jays would be silly to waste the arm of a man who Alex Anthopoulos chose to keep over Noah Syndergaard; Sanchez needs to start. Fortunately, forcing him in to a relief role in 2016 doesn’t preclude the Jays from having him start in the future. As long as they’re not going back and forth between the roles in season, it shouldn’t hinder Sanchez’s development, and will definitely help this year’s squad. That’s Wilner’s argument.
While pitching in the pen this year won’t hinder Sanchez’ development, it won’t necessarily help it either. In order to be an effective starter, he’s going to have to further develop his pitch mix, which isn’t going to happen when he can succeed in relief by throwing 85 percent fastballs. And just as there is plenty of starting depth, the same is true for the relievers. A back end that already includes Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil, and Drew Storen doesn’t *need* another elite reliever. It certainly can’t hurt, but they’ll be fine without him. That brings us to what’s behind door number three: Start Aaron Sanchez in AAA.
Let’s create a couple of decision criteria to break down this role conundrum.
How much does the role contribute to the team in 2016?
How much does the role help Sanchez reach his future potential?
In the Option 1, where Sanchez starts the season in the rotation, he might have be improved enough to be an asset, but he also might take up a spot from someone who can contribute more (i.e. Jesse Chavez or Gavin Floyd). In addition, he could be hurt developmentally if his changes don’t lead to success. In Option 2, wherein Sanchez remains a reliever, he’ll be a solid contributor in 2016…well, as much as any reliever can. However, he loses a year of development for starting, which doesn’t preclude him from starting all together, but does delay the process.
With Option 3, Buffalo, Sanchez won’t be able to contribute at the beginning of the season, outside of giving the team the opportunity to see what else they have in other arms. He may not enjoy it, but if Sanchez can hone his craft in Buffalo, it’s possible that he could be a bigger part of a late season playoff push than if he started the season in the major leagues. More importantly, he’ll also get the chance to develop as a starter in the best environment possible; he can throw as many curveballs, changeups, and cutters as necessary without worrying about results. Then, once he proves that he has mastered his stuff and AAA is no longer a challenge for him, the Jays can call him up.
It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike Marcus Stroman or Brett Lawrie before him, Aaron Sanchez never forced his way in to the majors. He stumbled up the ladder when the Jays lacked a right handed arm at the back of the bullpen. With that in mind, and the fact that the Jays finally have the depth to allow pitching prospects to develop, they need not be hasty. At one point, Aaron Sanchez was hailed as future top of the rotation starter. After losing out on one this offseason, the Jays should know now, more than ever, just how valuable those players can be.
Don’t waste it.
Lead Photo: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports