DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays will open the 2016 season with Aaron Sanchez in the starting rotation and a plan in mind to at some point transition him back to the bullpen.
Manager John Gibbons revealed the news Monday morning after right-hander Drew Hutchison was optioned to triple-A Buffalo and Gavin Floyd was informed that he’ll begin the campaign in the bullpen.
The Blue Jays haven’t announced precisely how the rotation will line up, although it’s very possible they come out of the gate with a four-man rotation and Marco Estrada on the disabled list in order to build him up with another outing in the minors before rejoining the club.
Estrada is expected to throw in a minor-league game Wednesday rather than the Grapefruit League finale in Fort Myers against the Twins, a decision that would allow the Blue Jays to backdate a DL stint. Thanks to a pair of off-days, they won’t need a fifth starter until the schedule’s second week.
That will be settled in the next few days.
For now, Floyd will pitch out of the bullpen in a middle-relief role to start the season, with room for the role to expand, while Sanchez starts, perhaps even the season’s third game at Tampa Bay.
“The big thing I’ve seen is he’s able to control that arm a little bit more now, he’s in the strike zone more often, which is usually typical of the guys that throw that hard when they’re young. It takes them a little time to harness that a little bit,” Gibbons said of Sanchez’s progress in camp. “I thought his off-speed stuff was really good this spring. That’s really what I was focusing on. But he’s earned it. Now we'll let him run with it and see what happens.”
At some point, the Blue Jays will move Sanchez to the bullpen, quite possibly around late July/early August. At that point, another starter could be added prior to the trade deadline with Sanchez moving to bolster the bullpen.
The plan, which Gibbons quipped won’t be revealed because “that gives you guys too much red meat,” is to ensure that Sanchez’s workload isn’t increased too dramatically. He’s never thrown more than 133.1 innings in a season.
“We’ll keep an eye on that and there’s a good chance he’ll be in that rotation the whole year,” said Gibbons. “We won’t lay out what the actual plan is, but we’ve got to be smart. You increase it too much, it’s probably harmful, and in the end if we need to put him down there in the bullpen, we’re that much stronger down there, too.”
The Mets last season faced a messy situation regarding the workload concerns of ace Matt Harvey, while the 2012 Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg in August when he hit an innings cap.
“It’s not one of those things where he’s not going to pitch all year, you’re going to stop him, like happened in another place a few years ago,” Gibbons said of Sanchez. “He’ll be here all year.”
With a reasonable increase of innings this season, the Blue Jays should be able to ease the reins on Sanchez next season. Gibbons has said if he’s in relief all year, it would be hard to convert him back to starter in 2017.
“That’s always been my feeling from my experience,” said Gibbons. “We all put our heads together and came up with this decision, it wasn’t like this was totally mine, but it turned out the way I wanted.”