TORONTO – Drew Storen should do great things for the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen. The 28-year-old right-hander can dominate with his fastball-slider combo, has proven he can close out games and is described as a good teammate who should fit into the AL East champions’ culture well.
As important as all those things are, the key element of his acquisition may very well be the flexibility he gives the Blue Jays with Aaron Sanchez, the electric-armed 23-year-old vital to the relief corps who now can realistically be stretched out because there’s someone around to cover his innings.
There are many layers to this trade with the Washington Nationals for Ben Revere and a player to be named, with one of them being what looks like a commitment to Michael Saunders in left field, even if Dalton Pompey will try during spring training to alter that school of thought.
Still, from a bigger-picture perspective, the Blue Jays are best served giving Sanchez every opportunity to be a starter, because if he’s left in the bullpen for another season, his development may be stunted to the point he’s relegated to a relief role for the rest of his career.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But given how the club’s prospect pool was stripped down at last year’s trade deadline, and that barring a sudden surge by Conner Greene, Sean-Reid Foley or Jon Harris there’s a big gap between the next wave of potential starters and the big-leagues, Sanchez is one of the few chances the Blue Jays have at adding a homegrown-stud to the rotation behind Marcus Stroman.
"There aren’t a lot of success stories with guys that pitch late in a bullpen (for an extended period) and then transition to the starting rotation," general manager Ross Atkins said Saturday. "There certainly are guys that transition as relievers, get acclimated to the major leagues and then become starters, they typically are pitching in more versatile roles.
"This is my opinion, not research, but there are a lot of things that happen to a delivery, too, from a pitching standpoint and from a pitch repertoire when you're only pitching one inning. Those things are relatively obvious – you use your fastball more, or certainly less pitches than you would as a starting pitcher, so developing those becomes much more difficult in those shorter stints, and then typically that can impact a delivery. Effort levels can vary a bit more, you're not having to focus on getting deep into a game, and you can really go max effort for shorter stints. Over time, that makes it more difficult to adjust to a more deliberate delivery that would last 200 innings over the course of a year pitching deep into ballgames."
Really, the Blue Jays owe it to themselves to see what Sanchez, if not Roberto Osuna too, can do as a starter. Desperation in 2015 prompted them to bring Sanchez back from the disabled list as a reliever last July, and even with the trade deadline additions of LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, they were still short in the ‘pen.
With Osuna, Storen – both of whom could end up closing, as Atkins wouldn’t commit to either Saturday – and Brett Cecil, the Blue Jays are still in position to shorten games with their bullpen. If Sanchez fails as a starter, they’ll only be stronger as a relief corps. But if he hits, he offers the rotation the kind of upside that’s hard to match, the kind that gets paid big in free agency.
That the Blue Jays had to sacrifice Revere – a solid player and leadoff man they’ll miss, despite his career .328 on-base percentage – to open up that possibility is a small price to pay, especially if Saunders is fully recovered from his left knee injury.
The 29-year-old from Victoria had his 2015 season ruined by an errant sprinkler-head at the club’s sub-standard spring facility in Dunedin, leading to a meniscus tear and a bone bruise. He said Saturday ahead of Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet that "the knee feels great, running again, agility (drills), everything, it borderline feels like I haven’t had surgery. I’m really excited."
Should he be able to step in seamlessly and produce, the Blue Jays will have cleaned up a redundancy on the roster while giving Sanchez the chance to start. If things work out that way, the future for 2017 and beyond looks a whole lot brighter.
"All of those things factored in. We feel we have the potential to better maximize our 25-man roster," said Atkins, adding later: "The (outfield) depth was nice, the fit was nice, but adding Drew Storen to our bullpen adds pitching depth from an area of outfield depth."
Pompey, Ezequiel Carrera and Junior Lake give the Blue Jays protection in the event Saunders’ knee hasn’t recovered, and intriguing outfield prospect Anthony Alford is coming fast after committing to baseball full-time last year.
The Blue Jays were left organizationally threadbare after dealing away 14 pitching prospects of varying quality over the last 14 months, and they’ve spent much of this off-season trying to recover from those trades. There was always going to be a comeuppance for last July, and that’s why retaining Marco Estrada, trading for Jesse Chavez, signing J.A. Happ and December’s flurry of minor-league signings that included Roberto Hernandez were so vital.
Storen, at minimum, stabilizes the bullpen. But if he also ends up allowing Sanchez to start, his contribution to the Blue Jays will far exceed what he delivers on the mound.