DUNEDIN, Fla. – The battle for the Toronto Blue Jays’ fifth starter job geared up a notch or three in Sunday’ win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd, the top two candidates for the job, both had very strong outings against a split squad of Rays that featured zero players who are likely to be in the starting lineup when things open up for real on April 3 at the Trop.
Sanchez gave up a double to the first batter he faced, Brandon Guyer, then retired 11 in a row before issuing a two-out walk to Richie Shaffer in the fourth – the first free pass he’s issued this spring. The tall righty, who hit an easy 96 mph on the gun with gusts to 98, got the next hitter on a grounder to short and finished up with four innings of four-hit shutout. He struck out four to go with the one walk.
Floyd followed and gave up loud doubles to two of the first three hitters he faced, then retired the next eight Rays – including four strikeouts in a row. He wound up allowing a run on two hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
As both Sanchez and Floyd continue to pitch well this spring, the decision as to which one of them moves into the starting rotation – and it’s very likely to be one of them, assuming health, as opposed to either Jesse Chavez or Drew Hutchison – will come down to how the Blue Jays decision makers feel they’re in better position to succeed as a team. Is it with Sanchez in the rotation or with Sanchez in the bullpen?
Sanchez, who turns 24 on Canada Day, came through the Blue Jays system as a starting pitcher but has had an incredible amount of success pitching in the major-leagues out of the bullpen. Coming into a game and just airing it out for three to five outs with his hard, hard sinker has been a formula for success both for him and the team over the last two seasons. He’s a known commodity as a reliever – a high-leverage, dominant, game-changer.
Sanchez the major-league starter is far from a known commodity, though the potential he has to be great is more than tantalizing. He made the team as a starter last season, but struggled with his command, walking 29 in just 38 innings over his first seven starts. Things then clicked, though, and Sanchez was arguably the Blue Jays’ best starting pitcher through most of the month of May and into early June, when he pitched into the ninth inning (as a starter) for the first and so far only time in his career. He beat the Astros and then went on the disabled list, missing the next seven weeks and returning as a member of what became a very strong Blue Jays bullpen.
So therein lies the rub.
We know what Sanchez is as a reliever, and he’s great. He’s still young, so having him spend one more year in the bullpen would still leave him a good decade-plus to be a starter in the big-leagues and, more importantly, would give the Blue Jays a lock-down foursome in Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen and Brett Cecil.
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? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle at this point in his career, with only 11 big-league starts under his belt.
The Blue Jays think they can win the World Series this year, and they’re not wrong. They’re certainly one of the best teams in the American League, if not the best, with an elite defence and an otherworldly offence. If Sanchez is in the rotation, the Blue Jays have a very good bullpen. If he’s a member of the relief corps, the Jays’ ‘pen is amazing.
If Sanchez reaches his potential as a starter this year, at 24 years old with 11 big-league starts under his belt, then the Blue Jays would be very well-served to start him. But what are the odds? And what are the odds that he’ll be a significantly better starter than a Floyd, Chavez or Hutchison? Again, at this point in his career.
An all-in year is not the time to see what you have in a starting pitcher, or to give him a chance because you can always stick him back in the bullpen if he fails. Especially when you know how great that pitcher is when used in relief. It says here that the Blue Jays use Sanchez as a reliever in 2016, that he wins them games out of the bullpen and might even be part of a championship squad. And he then gets a shot at starting. He certainly seems ready for the challenge, whichever way they decide to go.