MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Toronto Blue Jays

This Week in Blue Jays: The 2016 Choice is Clear

In this space, Jenn Smith takes a look back at the recent stories surrounding the Blue Jays and provides her thoughts on the matter, with links to some of the original sources. Look for this series on Sunday mornings to help you catch up on the goings on in Jays land.

There is no doubt in my mind that Aaron Sanchez should break camp as one of the five pitchers in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation.

There is, however, a great deal of doubt as to what the Jays’ front office will ultimately decide with regards to his fate this season. When asked on Friday whether or not a decision had been made regarding the fifth starter – the other four are Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ – manager John Gibbons replied “No. But we got a pretty good idea – well…no.”

It’s incredible how much the narrative has changed over the course of just one year. Last March, the team and fans alike were still reeling from the loss of phenom Marcus Stroman to a catastrophic freak injury. That set in motion a scenario that led to the Jays using twelve – the average is ten – different starters through the 2015 campaign. Add to that the lackluster performance of the bullpen until Osuna established himself as closer, and pitching was the bane of the Jays’ existence for the first half of the season. Now, just a year later, a healthy Stroman, the re-signing of Estrada and Dickey’s extension, and the acquisitions of Jesse Chavez, Gavin Floyd and Drew Storen mean that not only do the Jays have an above-average back-end of the bullpen, but the most difficult decision they are faced with this spring is who will win the fifth spot in the rotation, instead of taking it by default. To say this is a nice problem to have is an understatement.

Perhaps it is because the Blue Jays finally ended their playoff drought last season and are clearly in win-at-all-costs mode for 2016 that the issue of their fifth starter has been much discussed and debated not only amongst Jays’ media and fans, but also the baseball media at large. The majority have drawn the same conclusion – that Aaron Sanchez should be named the Jays’ fifth starter. Sanchez has made it crystal clear that he wants to be a starter, having endured intense physical training this offseason to pack on 20 pounds of muscle in an effort to improve his delivery. This in and of itself is not a reason to start him – the Jays can’t put Sanchez in the rotation just because he wants to be in the rotation – this season is far too important for such indulgences. The compelling factor is that not only has Sanchez been the Jays’ best pitcher this spring, but he’s been one of the best in all of baseball. His raw numbers are impressive.

Over the course of five outings and a cumulative 20 innings pitched, Sanchez has an ERA of 1.35 and a WHIP of 0.90. More importantly, however (especially given that spring training ERAs are a poor indicator of future performance), both his mechanics and secondary pitches look improved. In his article for Blue Jays Nation, John Lott notes that Sanchez achieved his goal of a sub-90 mph changeup and that both his changeup and curveball – which he rarely used as a reliever last season – look good. Pitching coach Pete Walker  has also noted the improvement: “I certainly see a stronger individual, a more consistent delivery. I see an extremely confident pitcher, one who believe he’s capable of getting major-league hitters out for more than one inning.”

Other teams have also taken notice. Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun quotes several scouts as being impressed with Sanchez’s stuff this spring. Said one National League scout: “If they have five guys better than Aaron Sanchez and he does not fit their rotation, they are going to win 150 games…All I know is that Sanchez could start opening day for us. Plus about six other teams I know.” Said another scout: “Sanchez is their best starter right now, not the best No. 5 candidate, but No. 1 and that includes Marcus Stroman. But despite all that, there is this strong Gavin Floyd undercurrent floating around here.”

Gavin Floyd is, of course, the other candidate for fifth starter. The other two spring hopefuls, Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison, appear destined for the bullpen and Buffalo, respectively. Floyd, however, is a different story. He was acquired on a one- year, $1 million contract by the Jays this offseason right at the beginning of spring training, and many people assumed he was here to be a long reliever. Instead, he chose to sign with Toronto because they were willing to give him a chance to once again be a starter, something that his previous team (the Cleveland Indians) were unwilling to entertain. The 33 year old right-hander has looked very good this spring, posting an ERA of 2.19 and a WHIP of 0.97 over 12.1 innings. As good as those numbers are (albeit over a small sample size), the concern surrounding Floyd is that he has pitched a total of only 92 innings over the last three seasons due to Tommy John surgery and two fractured elbows. Yet, as Elliott points out, “the Sanchez-to-the-bullpen lobby is being led by the Jays’ own front office. President Mark Shapiro has indicated Floyd has the edge over Sanchez, who has never pitched more than the 133.1 innings he worked in 2014.” A recent tweet  from Jon Heyman also indicates that the Floyd-for-Starter sentiment seems to be prevalent by those charged with making the decision. Given that Sanchez has had the better spring, this seems at odds with the Jays’ “win-now” modus operandi.

It should be noted that there are several factors to take into consideration. The first is that Sanchez excelled in the bullpen last season after struggling, at least initially, as a starter. In 66 innings in the rotation, Sanchez had an ERA of 3.55 with a 1.44 WHIP, whereas he had a 2.39 ERA with a miniscule WHIP of 0.87 in 26.1 relief innings. As a starter, Sanchez struggled with his command, particularly of his secondary pitches, while as a reliever he relied primarily on his wicked fastball. The other concern is that Sanchez has, as previously stated, never pitched more than 133 innings in a season – meaning that if he begins the season in the rotation, he will be subjected to an innings limit that could have the team restrict his availability at a time in the season when they may need him most. Innings limit aside, there is a temptation to bank on his proven reliability as a relief pitcher and use him, Cecil, Osuna and Storen as a formidable back-end of the bullpen that could help offset a potentially vulnerable rotation, similar to the Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching model .

This may be the “safe plan”, says Ken Rosenthal, but it’s not the “upside play.” Sanchez is one of the most highly touted pitching prospects in baseball, but would have less of an opportunity to improve his secondary pitches if relegated to the bullpen. Further, if he is once again dominant as a reliever, the Jays may be reluctant to ever make him a starter, which feels like they would be shortchanging both Sanchez as well as themselves. August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs takes this thought process one step further by saying that “it’s far more important to the organization to know whether Sanchez can stick as a starter than it is to know whether Floyd can stick as a starter,” pointing out that Sanchez is part of the team’s future plans whereas Floyd won’t be here past 2016. And though some have made the argument that Sanchez could start the season in the bullpen and be stretched out for the rotation later in the season, Fagerstrom points out that this is an unlikely scenario given that he’d have to spend some time in Buffalo in order to do so (whereas a guy like Jesse Chavez has played the role of swingman in the past and can easily transition from ‘pen to rotation if need be). Any concern over Sanchez’s 13% walk rate as a starter last year should at least in part be dispelled by his 3.8% walk rate this spring – noteworthy because it not only suggests that Sanchez’s command issues may be a thing of the past, but also because strikeout and walk rates stabilize the quickest of any pitcher statistics.

Though many fans see this as a simple decision, with all that is at stake this season, it is understandable why it has become more difficult than it perhaps is necessary. No matter from which angle I look at this, I return to the assertion that Sanchez has proven this spring that he can succeed as a starter, and that the upside he provides both now and in the long term far outweighs the potential concerns. Should he falter, he can always be moved into the bullpen – we’re already seen this scenario play out nicely. But, if the Jays are in it to win it all this season, they should break camp with the best possible starting rotation – and that would include Aaron Sanchez. The rest will fall into place.

Side note: should Marco Estrada need to start the season on the DL due to lingering back issues, both Sanchez and Floyd would start the season in the rotation, giving the Jays yet more opportunity to evaluate the two in this role.

Quick Hits:

  • An understandably frustrated Edwin Encarnacion hopes to get in enough at-bats this week to be ready for the season. With this being his final year before free agency – and the Blue Jays’ biggest season in 23 years – it is imperative that he be healthy and have another monster season.
  • Devon Travis played catch and fielded ground balls with the team on Sunday, marking a “fricking sick” milestone in his long road to recovery after undergoing shoulder surgery four months ago. While there is no time table for his return – he would need to first undergo a full training camp once he is ready to come back – I would assume that it will be later than originally thought (which was to resume baseball activities in late May and a return in June).
  • Blue Jays’ opening day starter Marcus Stroman begins the season as a longshot to win the Cy Young Award at 33/1 (per That means a $100 bet would net you $3300. Not a bad pay day – but I’m not a betting woman.
  • Mike Schmidt is the latest old timer to rip Jose Bautista’s Bat Flip, saying that “a flagrant disrespect of the opponent like that would have gotten somebody hurt back in the day” adding that “Bautista crossed the line.” This is yet another example of a washed up ballplayer trying to garner some attention by attacking one of the best in the game today. I’ve already given my opinion on this when Goose Gossage opened his big mouth, so rather than say anything else, I give you this instead. (You know what it is. Go on. Click it. Watch it one more time. You know you want to.)
  • And, finally. Sportsnet released a promotional video set to “Coming Home” and, well, how can you not be romantic about baseball?

Just start the season already. Toronto’s ready.

Lead Photo: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports


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