TORONTO – Eight times this summer, Aaron Sanchez appeared in a major-league game. Entering play Monday, he had spent 114 games and counting on the disabled list.
Given that ratio, it’s no wonder Sanchez sounds eager to move on from a trying 2017 season.
“When I (next) pick up a ball, I’m slamming the door on all this (expletive) that happened this year,” he said Monday afternoon. “I don’t even want to look at my finger.”
The finger he’s referring to, the middle finger on his pitching hand, has led to four separate stints on the DL for Sanchez, last year’s American League leader in ERA. First, it was a blister. Then he had part of his fingernail removed. But the nail cracked, and another blister appeared.
Finally, as Sanchez started building his way back toward a relief role, the toll of those early-season injuries added up. A pulley strain of a ligament in that same finger will sideline him for the remainder of the season. The proposed solution? Rest.
“At least I know what’s what and what I have to do to move forward and come back healthy for 2018,” Sanchez said.
The 25-year-old expects to pick up a baseball midway through December, by which time the pulley strain will have had more than enough time to heal. Between now and then, he’ll continue consulting with doctors, then develop a workout plan with help from Blue Jays trainers and coaches.
Ultimately, there’s no proven template for solving these finger-related issues, though. If such a fix existed, the Blue Jays wouldn’t have had to place him on the DL so often.
“It’s not something there’s a ton of research around,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “There’s not a silver-bullet fix.”
With that in mind, the Blue Jays probably can’t be fully confident that Sanchez will be ready for another 30-start season until he starts throwing in games. A late-season return could have helped build confidence entering the off-season. Instead, the pulley strain intervened and Blue Jays are hoping rest and rehab will allow for a return to form in 2018.
“My understanding: Once this calms down he’s fine,” manager John Gibbons said.
“We’re confident Aaron will return to full form,” Atkins added.
Sanchez proved that he has the ability to pitch atop a big-league rotation last year, when he posted a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings. Not only are those elite numbers, they prevented the Blue Jays from relying on the Casey Lawrence, Cesar Valdez and Mike Bolsinger types who pitched so much in 2017.
Next year the Blue Jays hope to be better positioned on two fronts. They’ll count on Sanchez for more than eight starts, and they expect to have more starting depth beyond their top five.
“We could have a rotation, depending on a lot of variables, but having three or four young, optionable starters at triple-A,” Atkins said. “That hasn’t been the case for three years. It’s not ever about five guys. It has to be about eight guys. We were really fortunate in 2016.”
At the big-league level, the Blue Jays have Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ locked in place beyond this season along with Sanchez. Joe Biagini, who will finish the year in the Toronto rotation, presents the Blue Jays with another starting option. To supplement that group, the front office will pursue starters in free agency, with Marco Estrada and Brett Anderson among the options. (For what it’s worth, Atkins described Anderson as “really impressive,” with “all of the attributes that you’re looking for in a starting pitcher.”)
Then there’s the all-important question of optionable triple-A starters. The Blue Jays’ triple-A club lacked compelling options in 2017, but prospects Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone could be among the available starters next year. Borucki impressed at three levels this year, while Reid-Foley offers a high ceiling and Pannone offers a high floor. Of course the more Sanchez pitches, the less that depth gets tested.
“You have to factor in everything,” Atkins said. “You consider durability, you consider how guys are built up, but we’re confident that Aaron Sanchez is more than just a major-league starting pitcher. He has all the attributes to be a great starting pitcher.”
Sanchez showed as much in 2016, only to endure a trying follow-up season. After months of frustration, he says it’s time to move on and look ahead.
“This game’s already hard enough,” Sanchez said. “If I’m going to complain about this, I’ll drive myself crazy. That’s one thing I’m not going to do.”