The crown jewel of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system is pitching in the Arizona Fall League, trying to make up for some lost development time.
Aaron Sanchez, the lighting-armed right-hander upon whom so many long-term hopes are pinned, didn’t make the expected progression from single-A Dunedin to double-A New Hampshire this past season, largely because a shoulder injury stalled his progress by limiting him to only 22 games, 20 of them starts, and just 86.1 innings. Ideally, the 21-year-old would have finished with a cumulative workload in the neighbourhood of 120 innings. That’s why he’s with the Salt River Rafters in the prospect showcase circuit, trying to close the gap and set himself up to open the 2014 season in New Hampshire, with the big-leagues in sight.
“I need to get my innings—I have to. Not because they want me too, but because I want them,” says Sanchez in a recent interview. “That’s the only way the experience and all that stuff is going to come together.”
Sanchez made his debut in the hitter-friendly AFL on Thursday night, throwing three shutout innings while allowing a hit and two walks with a strikeout in Salt River’s 8–1 loss to Mesa. He threw 39 pitches, 19 of them strikes. The two walks he issued bear noting as critics routinely point to the 40 he dished out in his 86.1 innings at Dunedin. Yet, his walks per nine decreased from 5.1 to 4.2 this year (still a concerning total) and some of his troubles can be attributed to the ongoing growing pains related to harnessing the latest spike in his velocity.
Last year at low-A Lansing he touched 99–100 m.p.h. for the first time and sat 94–95. This season he sat 95–96 consistently while holding that power deeper into his outings. Combined with an emphasis on learning to throw his curveball for strikes, he believes the walk total may be deceiving.
"It’s not like my command is bad, they’re competitive walks," Sanchez says. "Don’t get me wrong, there are some four-pitch walks, but being able to throw my curveball for a strike and put out people with my curveball is probably the biggest thing I wanted to work on this year, because I feel like my changeup and my fastball are pretty much there every night."
Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays assistant general manager who oversees the farm system, has often pointed to the need for Sanchez to readjust yearly to velocity gains, and said that consistency would only come once those gains tapered off.
That process started happening this season, and once it became apparent Sanchez could weave his way through single-A competition on his fastball alone, the player development staff told him it was time to start locking down an off-speed weapon to complement his overpowering heater.
When the results weren’t immediately there, he had to stick with the breaking ball.
"I want people to beat me with my best stuff, that’s everybody’s thought process," says Sanchez. "Getting cheap hits on my off-speed was frustrating at the beginning, but I understood the big picture. This whole process since I’ve been drafted is looking at the whole big picture and yeah, maybe it’s slower and I still may be in high-A, but there’s been a plan since the day I signed and it’s about sticking to it."
In past years the curveball has been more of a finishing pitch for Sanchez—an "0-2 hammer punch-out curve," as he describes it—while this season he incorporated a slower version of it in the 79–84 range that finishes in the zone. The difference, he explains, is in "the release point."
"I was trying to make it too nasty, and taking a step back, and letting it do the work out front is what’s helped me," he continues. "It was always a good curveball, I just could never throw it for a strike, so nobody would respect it. They were sitting fastball. Now that I can throw that, it’s getting me through five, six, seven innings."
Building on his ability to handle more innings is key for Sanchez to take the next steps, particularly given the progression path for young arms set by the Blue Jays, which some in baseball circles criticize as overly cautious (an approach the organization may re-evaluate, GM Alex Anthopoulos said at the end of the season).
Sanchez fell behind Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino, his former Lansing teammates traded by the Blue Jays during their buildup last winter. In the Miami Marlins system, Nicolino made 27 starts covering 142 innings, his last nine games coming at double-A Jacksonville, while in the New York Mets system, Syndergaard made 23 starts covering 117.2 innings, the final 11 outings with double-A Binghamton.
In spite of missing May due to tightness in the subscapularis muscle underneath the armpit, with the pain presenting itself in the back of the shoulder, Sanchez felt he could throw through it. But the Blue Jays erred heavily on the side of caution, giving him double the recovery time needed when he felt fine after two weeks.
"I wouldn’t describe it as being hurt—I was still throwing low to mid-90s. It just felt tight," he says. "If I was throwing 81 or 82 it would have scared me, but out there on the mound I was still 92–94, so I just knew it needed a little TLC. Being in the shoulder, you want it to be 100 percent and not try to power through it and then have something really wrong."
All that is behind him now, and a strong run in the AFL and a good showing next year in double-A should leave him on the cusp of the big leagues.
While the Blue Jays are split internally between those who want to be conservative with the club’s prospects and those who want to push them more aggressively, it’s worth noting that they haven’t been shy about promoting pitchers from double-A. Henderson Alvarez appeared in just 15 games at A New Hampshire before he was promoted to the big-leagues, while Drew Hutchison and Sean Nolin each had just six starts for the Fisher Cats under their belts when they got the call.
"That’s what you want to do, start somewhere and finish somewhere else," says Sanchez. "My whole thought process this year was wherever I’m at, work hard, have fun and let everything else take care of itself. I wanted to go out there and do my thing and hopefully that was good enough to get to the next level."
It didn’t work out that way in 2013, but he can position himself for a different outcome in 2014.