Sanchez lights-out as Blue Jays contemplate tough call in rotation

Buck Martinez and Joe Siddall recap the Toronto Blue Jays victory against the Tampa Bay Rays in the spring.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays would face a much simpler decision if their rotation candidates weren’t pitching so well.

But as Aaron Sanchez, Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison continue performing to their potential, the challenge of choosing a fifth starter grows. The trend continued Sunday as Sanchez and Floyd, two legitimate candidates for the job, both pitched well in a Blue Jays win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

“They’re all doing a good job. It’s not like anybody has necessarily separated themselves, and nobody’s having a tough time,” manager John Gibbons said. “It’s going to be a tough decision, but it’s going to come down to what makes the team the strongest.”

Sanchez pitched extremely well Sunday, holding the Rays’ split-squad lineup scoreless through four innings. The right-hander generated 11 of his 12 outs on ground balls (7) and strikeouts (4) while walking one batter and allowing one hit. He relied heavily on his sinking fastball while mixing in plenty of curves and some change-ups.

Sanchez’s fastball averaged 95 mph last season, but he’s been in the 94-98 range this spring after adding 20-plus pounds of muscle. He said he could have pitched another three innings if he’d been playing in a game that counted.

"I can definitely feel it," he said. "I feel a lot stronger out there. I feel like I’m not even trying to throw. It’s more about putting my body in the right position to execute a pitch and it’s seamless for me out there right now."

Sanchez’s curve impressed Gibbons most. The pitch, an essential offering for the 23-year-old if he starts, has come along nicely in recent outings. He threw it three times in a row at one point Sunday as a way of gaining a feel for it.

Floyd then added to the intrigue by striking out five in three innings of work. He allowed one run on a pair of early doubles before recovering for another strong showing with an array of off-speed pitches and a fastball in the 91-94 mph range. Considering he missed most of the last three seasons with elbow injuries, the Blue Jays are pleased and perhaps even a little surprised to see him holding up so well.

"To be truthful, yeah," Gibbons said. "He’s popping it pretty good. You figure he might be out there pitching, but his velocity would be down. That’s not the case. He’s here for a reason and he’s stepping up, too."

With just one rotation spot up for grabs, it stands to reason that two of Sanchez, Floyd and Chavez will be in the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Gibbons hopes that stretching them out early will even benefit those who end up in the bullpen.

"You can throw a lot of innings then back them off, make somebody a ‘pen guy. It’d probably be beneficial to them," he said.

There’s no doubt about where Sanchez hopes to be.

"Absolutely I’m thinking starter," he said. "They know what I want to do. Everybody in baseball knows what I want to do."

Whether Sanchez starts or pitches in relief, his track record suggests he’ll be an impact arm.

"Eventually when it comes together for him, he should be a dominating major league pitcher, one of the best, whatever role he is," Gibbons said.

But with other intriguing arms looking good, it’s not as though it's Sanchez’s spot to lose.

"He can’t lose," Gibbons said. "I know he wants to start. Most of them want to start, be a major league starter, but they all can’t do that. Some of them thrive in the bullpen, some of them make careers once they leave the rotation and become bullpen guys. He’s so young and he’s so talented, that’s his dream to be his starter."

Could the dream could become reality this year? For four innings Sunday he looked like an effective big league starter. It adds up to a tough call for the team.

"It’s not supposed to be an easy decision for them and I don’t want to make it an easy decision," Sanchez said.