CLEVELAND – Baseball front offices use the word creative a lot when it comes to problem solving, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ handling of Aaron Sanchez certainly qualifies in that regard. Consider that over the past three weeks they’ve gone from moving him to the bullpen to a six-man rotation and now to a 10-day demotion to single-A Dunedin as a means to artificially restrain his innings count.
Given that the 24-year-old right-hander is in the midst of an all-star and Cy Young Award-calibre season, and that this stint in the minors won’t cost him any service time but will take roughly $11,500 in salary out of his pocket, the word unprecedented comes to mind, too. There’s a delicate balance of competing interests at play here, and Sanchez’s team-first orientation here should not be taken lightly.
“Haven’t seen that one before,” general manager Ross Atkins said Sunday when asked if he knew of any relevant comparisons. “I’m really impressed with Aaron, being in the hunt for a Cy Young, being in the middle of a pennant race, and his willingness to do this is a testament to how he was raised and the kind of person he is. …
“He’s taking a hit.”
The Blue Jays should, and you would think will, find a way to make Sanchez whole at some point, either by cutting him a cheque for the difference between the pro-rated portion of his big-league salary ($28,295 of $517,800) and his minor-league split (believed to be $16,747 of $306,480), or by adding something extra when his contract is up for renewal next year. After the 2011 season, for example, when the Blue Jays told Ricky Romero they didn’t want him to pitch for the MLB team doing a tour of Japan because he’d already logged 225 innings, they paid him the $50,000 he would have made had he gone.
Not apples to apples, but the principle is similar.
Far more unusual is the kind of juggling act the Blue Jays have undertaken to keep Sanchez starting this year. The current plan was hatched when they went to a six-man rotation in Houston after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and Sanchez “had to be open to it for us to do it,” said Atkins. “There’s no way we would have done it if he didn’t say, ‘Yeah, if that works for the team, then it works for me.’”
During Sanchez’s 10 days in Dunedin, he’ll continue to do his work as usual, Atkins sure made it sound like he won’t pitch in any games, and then he’ll return to start Aug. 31 in Baltimore against the Orioles.
In the interim, his roster spot helps with a looming crunch as Kevin Pillar is set for activation from the disabled list Tuesday, and Jose Bautista – who’s expected to play in rehab games this week at Dunedin, said Atkins – is eligible for activation Thursday.
With Aaron Loup, recalled from triple-A Buffalo on Sunday, and fellow reliever Ryan Tepera, the Blue Jays now have two players they can option to make room. Ryan Goins, Devon Travis and Darwin Barney are the only position players with options, but the latter two aren’t going anywhere.
So Sanchez’s flexibility on this front pays dividends far beyond saving a few innings.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning ballgames and if I’m just going to be sitting here knowing that they’re going to skip my start, why don’t we bring somebody up to help continue to win ballgames,” said Sanchez. “That’s the stand we took. Obviously it’s not ideal but it’s something that was discussed and it just so happened to be after (Saturday) night’s start. There’s no hard feelings, hopefully we continue winning. This is an important part of our season and if adding someone to the roster gives us the best chance to win that night, then so be it.”
Sanchez threw four innings – including a 40-pitch fourth inning – in Saturday’s 6-5 win, extending his career-high season total to 156.1 innings. His next turn in the rotation would have been Saturday at home against Minnesota, but now Marcus Stroman will move up a day.
Pitching on 10 days of rest will be new for Sanchez, although he’s become accustomed to extra days between outings this year, starting five times on five days of rest, six times on six days and once on nine days versus 11 times on the regular four days.
“As a pitcher there are adjustments you have to make, and it all comes down to being ready,” said Sanchez. “I don’t think I’ve forgotten how to pitch but it is tough sometimes for guys to not get that game action. But I don’t think that will be a problem. Having done it the last few weeks here … has given me the understanding of what I need to do in my routine to be ready and to be sharp.”
Once Sanchez returns, the Blue Jays will again run a six-man rotation for at least one turn through, said Atkins. Beyond that, Sanchez’s turns would come up Sept. 9 against the Boston Red Sox, at the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 15, at the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 21 and versus the Orioles Sept. 28.
There will be an opportunity to skip him again to keep him fresh and available for the post-season, should they get there.
“As we’ve said the whole time,” said Atkins, “what we’ll do is go start by start and work off of Aaron and do what’s best for him and what’s best for the team.”
An approach that’s creative, unprecedented and, largely, evolving as the season goes along.