Best bet for Blue Jays and struggling Sanchez is to keep him in rotation

Justin Smoak hit the game-tying home run and hit a walk-off single in the 10th as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1.

TORONTO – Seriously, let’s just stop with the Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen stuff, which keeps lingering in the discourse as an instant-gratification, easy-answer solution. Sure, putting him in the bullpen makes him a weapon, but it’s also a really short-sighted way to manage the asset.

The smart play for the Toronto Blue Jays right now is to show patience and keep starting the right-hander for the rest of this season and into the next, since the way for both sides to maximize value is if Sanchez succeeds in the rotation.

Well, your hot-take asks, “hasn’t he shown that he’s only a one-time-through-the-order arm?” And, “isn’t he only under club control for only one more year after this one, making a successful transition between roles all the more urgent?”

Yes, the data this year certainly suggests he gets hit pretty hard the second and third times through the lineup, and yes, the opportunity for the Blue Jays to leverage the right-hander is indeed quickly running out.

But, even if general manager Ross Atkins tried to sell the 27-year-old as a reliever ahead of the July 31 trade deadline, he’d still be taking pennies on the dollar. In fact, he might even be taking pennies on the pennies. Recently, I asked one American League executive hunting for pitching whether the Blue Jays could find a taker for Sanchez this summer. “Not if they want value back,” he replied.

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Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps another club might feel differently, but it underlines the position of weakness the Blue Jays are in with him, and why they should keep on giving him run as a starter.

Though he’s struggled, this isn’t a lost year for Sanchez.

The five innings of one-run ball with no walks and six strikeouts he delivered in Tuesday night’s 2-1 win over Cleveland clinched by Justin Smoak’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th inning is Sanchez’s latest sign of progress. What’s worth remembering is that he’s finding himself again as a pitcher after two mostly injury marred years. There’s no substitute for reps.

“Finally, just having my feet underneath me, really,” Sanchez said of what’s helped his recent turn.

“For so long there, dating back to 2017 when the finger issues first started, I altered so many things just to get 60 feet, six inches. You create a lot of bad habits doing that and sometimes, it’s harder to knock the bad habit than it is to start fresh. For me, it’s knocking those bad habits, getting back to what feels comfortable for me and it’s worked. Just staying on that.”

Given their dearth of pitching, the Blue Jays certainly have opportunity to give, and their void will grow more dire after the looming trade of Marcus Stroman, who is expected to make his scheduled start Wednesday, but whose fate could be settled soon afterwards.

Double-A right-hander Patrick Murphy would have been a leading candidate for promotion, but while adjusting his delivery to eliminate a toe-touch suddenly deemed illegal, he suffered some shoulder fatigue and is now rehabbing in Dunedin, Fla.

Meanwhile, T.J. Zeuch, the 2016 first-rounder, has hit a wall at triple-A Buffalo. Jon Harris, the 2015 first-rounder, suffered a forearm strain and isn’t pitching. While Julian Merryweather, rebuilding from Tommy John surgery, is recovering from fatigue.

That leaves Sean Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone as the likeliest arms to jump in, but with Trent Thornton on the injured list, one of them is needed to simply get the Blue Jays back to a full rotation.

In that vein, Sanchez helps the Blue Jays by simply taking the ball every five days, something he’s now done a team-leading 22 times this season even as he’s continued to fight through physical issues big and small.

“When I go out there and take the ball, you’ve got to go out there and compete regardless of how you feel, what you’ve got. It showed this year,” said Sanchez. “There have been games when I’ve been down, games where I’ve been up and a lot of that is dependent on how I feel. I’m not going to use that as an excuse to what’s been going on. I chose to take the ball, I’ll live with what happens. But the fact that I’m feeling better more and more each and every start for probably the last five or six starts now, I’m pleased with where I’m at.”

Committing to him as a starter will allow him to continue relearning how his fingers, his arm and his body work, how he best manipulates the ball now and what’s going to play with his current physical set up.

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He can then spend the off-season rebuilding his physical base in a way he couldn’t while recovering from injuries the past two winters, and perhaps find more of that lost velocity.

“Rome wasn’t built in day. That’s the biggest thing I’ve really held on to,” said Sanchez. “Patience is a virtue and it sucks that for me I was at the top of the game and now I’m at the bottom. It just makes the story that much better at the end.”

A rebuild affords the Blue Jays the luxury of patience in allowing Sanchez to keep working toward that. More than most, Smoak understands the power of that patience as while his career path differs from that of his teammate, it’s similar in needing the time to find himself on the field.

“It doesn’t help that (Sanchez), he was an all-star young … there are definitely expectations and it’s something that everybody wants,” said Smoak. “For him, not pitching for a year and a half, two years, it’s definitely going to take time to get back into the everyday grind of his routine. I feel like over his last few starts he’s definitely been a lot better and, hopefully, that continues.”

Barring a total collapse in the coming months, the Blue Jays can tender Sanchez a contract in the off-season, let him start 2020 as a starter and give him a couple of months to see if he can regain his past form.

If he can, the Blue Jays then have a great rental starter to sell before next year’s deadline. If he can’t, they can transition him to the bullpen sometime in June, let him show his stuff as a reliever and then sell that to a contender.

Such an approach is better for Sanchez and is better for the Blue Jays. One way or another the 2016 American League ERA champion’s time with the team is running out, but there’s no need for the club to sell him, or itself, short.

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