Sanchez hopes to join Stroman in Blue Jays’ 2016 rotation

Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez talks about his desire to make his mark as a member of the team's rotation in 2016.

After an off-season spent building strength with teammate Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez says he’s ready for a job in the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting rotation.

“My mindset right when we finished last season was to get in shape to start,” Sanchez said at Rogers Centre Tuesday. “That’s what I’ve done my entire minor league career and I want to prove to people here that I can do it.”

The Blue Jays are intrigued by what Sanchez could accomplish as a starter, and the addition of Drew Storen means the bullpen could get by without him. Still, team decision makers haven’t given the 23-year-old any final word on their plans just yet.

“My goal is to be a starter in the big leagues,” Sanchez said. “If they say that I’m going to the ‘pen I have no control over that. I go to the ‘pen and be the best seventh, eighth or ninth inning guy that this team needs me to be to win ballgames.”

Sanchez opened the 2015 season in the Blue Jays’ rotation, posting a 3.55 ERA with 37 walks against 42 strikeouts in 11 starts. A lat strain forced him to the disabled list just as he was hitting his stride, delaying his plans of starting until 2016.

The right-hander thrived in 30 appearances out of the bullpen, posting a 2.39 ERA with a 68 per cent ground ball rate and just 16 hits. He followed that up with an ERA of 0.00 in nine playoff appearances -- further evidence that he can excel in relief.

But Sanchez wants to start, so in late November he joined Stroman at Duke University, where he focused on building strength in twice-daily workouts.

"Every day in the gym we’d say ‘nine every five,’ the idea of going nine innings every five days," Stroman said. "We weren’t doing two-a-days for him to be a reliever. Everything that we did was to go out and throw 200-plus, go out every day and throw seven, eight, nine innings."

Stroman, still less than a year removed from ACL surgery, says he now feels stronger thanks to extensive work with Duke's medical staff, including Nikki Huffman, who has since been hired by the Blue Jays. He's hopeful of pitching without a knee brace on opening day 2016 and logging his first 200-inning season. Ideally, Sanchez would be in the rotation with him.

"That’s what the preparation was for," Stroman said. "We know he has the potential to be an unbelievable shutdown reliever, but I think he has more value as a starter. I truly believe that."

If Sanchez starts, the Blue Jays would have to backfill a bullpen that's already lost right-handers Mark Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins and Liam Hendriks. In theory that could mean opportunity for the likes of Steve Delabar, Bo Schultz and Ryan Tepera.

Four spots in the Blue Jays' rotation are spoken for thanks to Stroman, Marco Estrada, R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ, but the fifth spot will likely be opened up for competition. Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and Jesse Chavez are candidates to start, and team president Mark Shapiro says the team hopes to add rotation depth.

Hutchison posted a 5.57 ERA last year, and Chavez has struggled late in seasons, but that alone doesn't assure Sanchez of a rotation spot. To stand out from that group he'll have to answer some of questions: can he start for a full season despite having a career high of 92.1 innings? How much can he improve on the .801 OPS left-handed batters have against him? Does he have enough secondary pitches to turn lineups over three times?

Though spring training doesn't start for another month, Sanchez has already started working on a change-up, a pitch he rarely had to use in relief, but one that would theoretically allow him to neutralize left-handed batters and give hitters different looks late in games.

“I know what I can do with number one, so the emphasis for me going in to spring training is working to develop my change-up," Sanchez said.

The progress of that pitch could go a long way toward determining Sanchez's role, since there's no questioning the effectiveness of his two-seam fastball. “He’s going to be a star when he gets his secondary pitches going,” manager John Gibbons said last month.

It's that kind of potential that could lead the Blue Jays to stretch Sanchez out this spring. There's no guarantee that he'll earn a rotation spot again, but there's little to lose by stretching out a live-armed 23-year-old and seeing where that off-season work led.

“I know wholeheartedly that he wants to be a starter," Stroman said. "I think he’s going to run with it this spring."