Aaron Sanchez: Top prospect stands alone

Aaron Sanchez had a disappointing season in the minors after suffering a shoulder injury, but he’s determined to make up the time this fall. (Alexis Brudnicki)

Editor’s note: Top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez had a difficult fourth inning against the New York Yankees’ Florida State League affiliate Tuesday, allowing four runs and four hits in a game the Dunedin Blue Jays would eventually win.

The 20-year-old right-hander has a 3.86 ERA with 10 strikeouts and six walks through three starts at Class A this year, but he expects more from himself on the mound.

Sanchez, a first round selection in 2010, enters the 2013 season as the #65 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.

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La Trattoria Da Gaetano is an unassuming little eatery hidden in the corner of a Dunedin, Fla., strip mall. In the spring of 1993, a hungry collection of Blue Jays gathered here, still glowing from winning the World Series months earlier. One player—owner Gaetano Palmieri can’t recall who—leaned in and whispered, “Don’t worry. If we break anything, we’ll pay for it.”

They didn’t. But the intention was there.

Twenty years later, the restaurant hasn’t changed, save for the disappearance of a sun-faded picture of Cito Gaston that once greeted customers as they entered the front door. “Someone swiped it,” whispers Palmieri, with a hint of irritation.

Through the door walks a muscular kid with a wide smile, offering a hand to Palmieri. He’s a 20-year-old ballplayer bursting with purpose, waking up every day with intentions of his own: to break every record ever established by a Blue Jays pitcher, and win a whole bunch of rings along the way. The kid’s name is Aaron Sanchez, Toronto’s only remaining member of a precocious trio of starting pitchers known as “The Lansing Three.”

Digging into a plate of chicken marsala, Sanchez is a long way from home. He comes from Barstow, Calif., a military town cut in two by Interstate 15 and the halfway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It’s small enough, says Sanchez, that “you can get from one side to the next in 10 minutes.”

By the time Sanchez was born, his biological father was long gone. Frank Sanchez left his wife, Lynn, while she was pregnant with Aaron, so the only man Aaron has ever called “Dad” is a former baseball player named Mike Shipley. Shipley was a left-handed pitcher drafted by the Angels, but a damaged shoulder ended his career prematurely. So he took to coaching the baseball team at Barstow College. During batting practice, Shipley would cover Aaron—then only three years old—in catcher’s gear, put him in the outfield, and tell him not to turn sideways. While players chuckled at the sight of the heavily padded preschooler, the seeds of passion were planted.

Sanchez doesn’t fit the description of the old-time, tobacco-chewing, fireballing pitcher. He doesn’t drink anything stronger than iced tea, and he’s unfailingly polite. But don’t be fooled by his churchgoing charm. “I’m a prick,” says Sanchez, his smile suddenly fading. “I’m a sore loser. There’s nothing about losing that sits well with me. It’s me against you and I’m going to get you out before you get me.”

That intensity was what caught the eye of the Blue Jays, who were happy Sanchez was still available with the 34th pick of the 2010 MLB Draft. Two summers later, Sanchez was sent to Lansing, Mich., home of the Jays’ Midwest League affiliate. It was there that he and two other pitchers—right-hander Noah Syndergaard, who could throw a fastball through a car wash without getting the ball wet, and left-hander Justin Nicolino, known for his exquisite control—dominated hitters so extensively that scouts flocked, statistical analysts marvelled, and Sanchez dreamed. “We wanted to be one, two and three… and make our debuts together for the Blue Jays, pitching night after night.”

Sanchez wasn’t the only one dreaming. Fans across Canada, tracking their development, envisioned a big-league rotation similar to Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, three members of the Braves who made playoff games an annual event in Atlanta.

But in Toronto, 2012 passed without a hint of the post-season, and GM Alex Anthopoulos, motivated by growing impatience, began making some phone calls. In baseball, prospects are currency. So within four weeks, the major-league roster had been reshaped at a sizable price that reduced Lansing’s trio to a single man. First to go was Nicolino, Sanchez’s best friend (“We finished each other’s sentences”), dealt to the Miami Marlins. Next, Syndergaard was used as bait to land R.A. Dickey. Throughout the process, Sanchez was nervous, and he had a right to be. Both the Marlins and Mets had asked about him. “I never tell anybody that anyone is untradeable,” says Anthopoulos. “But we think highly of Aaron. He’s got it all. Arm strength, size, can spin the curveball.”

He’s also got a healthy dose of confidence that’s recently been diluted by a knowledgeable source. His off-season workout partner was once a shining prospect, too. “It’s good to be arrogant,” says Ricky Romero, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2005, now holding down the fifth spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation. “But be arrogant the right way. This game will humble you in three seconds, and that’s what Aaron has always understood.”

Sanchez also understands this: Stardom isn’t a given. Baseball’s highway is littered with failed promise. And the window of opportunity doesn’t remain open for very long. “Dino Ebel is a family friend,” he says. “He’s the third-base coach for the Angels. He told me, ‘That window can be this big’ [Sanchez raises his thumb and forefinger, separated by a few centimetres], so when you pass through it, slam it.’”

Anthopoulos has assembled a team worthy of a playoff run in 2013. In Toronto, and across Canada, it’s all right to dream again—of the game-ending strikeout, players dancing on the mound, or the parade down Bay Street, a crush of people trying to get close. And perhaps it’s all right to picture happy players, still aglow from a championship, thinking about smashing all the dishes over at Gaetano’s come spring.

As the season unfolds, Sanchez will be watching, hoping he won’t have to wait very long before falling in behind Romero, or Dickey, or Brandon Morrow. And when he arrives, he’s got big plans. “I dream big. I want to be Rookie of the Year, win the Cy Young, pitch in game seven and win the World Series. It’s the only way I know how.”

Jamie Campbell is the host of Blue Jays Central on Sportsnet

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