That the 23-year-old right-hander will open the season in the starting rotation should have been an easy call. As manager John Gibbons put it Monday after revealing the news, Sanchez very much “earned it” by committing to a new workout routine last summer, pursuing it rigorously over the winter and reaping the benefits in improved command this spring.
Results aside, his stuff is pure boss.
Yet getting to this point took longer than it should have, the product of a solid spring by Gavin Floyd and a perhaps unfair doubt about Sanchez’s durability in some corners. Being too cautious in such matters isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, especially with such a pivotal asset.
Ostensibly he beat out Floyd for the fifth starter’s spot. In reality, he should be far more than that, and may very well pitch the campaign’s third game at Tampa Bay. The potential 1-2 punch he and Marcus Stroman could eventually form in the rotation is what multiple trips to the playoffs are built around.
To mitigate against any potential health risks from the projected jump in his workload, at some point Sanchez will likely transition back to the bullpen, preventing the kind of drama the Mets had with Matt Harvey last year, and the Nationals faced when they shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012. “We’re never going to come out and reveal what that is,” said Gibbons. “That gives you guys (media) too much red meat.”
Logically, the transition should happen in late July or early August, after another starter is picked up prior to the trade deadline, with Sanchez becoming another weapon in relief. In 2017, once he’s worked in the area of 160-180 innings perhaps, the reins will be off.
There’s lots of sense to this approach, balancing a number of different interests.
“I’d be a little bit surprised if I came out of the ‘pen only because my mindset since we lost against Kansas City has been starter the whole time,” Sanchez said of his reaction to the decision. “So I came in with a plan and it was all about executing, and I felt like I did a pretty good job of doing that.”
The way Sanchez took control of his career and forced the Blue Jays’ hand this spring is an important element not to be overlooked here.
The 34th overall pick in 2010 entered the organization just as it was implementing a regimented and overcautious approach to building up pitchers. His innings were limited early and he and fellow gilt-edged prospects Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino were among a group of starters who were piggy-backed together in outings to keep workloads down.
When Syndergaard was traded to the New York Mets as part of the R.A. Dickey deal, Sanchez could only watch longingly as the reins were removed from his close friend while he remained coddled. That caught up with him the past couple of years, when he simply didn’t have the physical base to keep up.
In 2014, he threw a career-high 133.1 innings between the minors and big-leagues, where he debuted as a reliever, and logged a total of 109.1 last year including the post-season.
While there wasn’t organizational unanimity on this front, enough people felt a full year in the bullpen would have cut him off to a future in the rotation.
“That’s always been my feeling from my experience,” said Gibbons. “We all put our heads together and came up with this decision, it wasn’t like this was totally mine, but it turned out the way I wanted. … (Giving him a chance to start) was important to me, but if he hadn’t pitched so well in the starting role, he wouldn’t be there.”
Not to be lost is that Sanchez did indeed pitch well, and the work he put in to leverage his front of the rotation potential is why the entire exercise this spring was so important on multiple levels.
Every team is looking for pitchers who sit mid- to upper-90s with sink deep into games, and the Blue Jays were at risk of relegating one such hurler to a life of relief. Methodically, Sanchez changed minds that as recently as two weeks ago were ready to put him in the bullpen, preferring the perceived steadiness of Floyd instead.
“I’m just proud of him, I saw the work he put in,” Stroman said of Sanchez, his close friend. “Just to see all the hard work pay off, it’s gratifying to him and myself because I was with him every single day. I’m excited for him, we’ve been talking about this for a long time being in this rotation together and it’s finally come to fruition.”
Sanchez’s progress left the Blue Jays with no other justifiable choice.
“The command of my heater,” he said when asked about his most important gains. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job of putting the baseball where I’ve wanted to. In terms of secondary pitches, I think I’ve made tremendous strides with everything. I think my cutter’s still lacking, but that’s something that’s a work in progress, and that will continue to be a work in progress.
“I felt like my three-pitch mix is right where it needs to be, and I’m ready to attack 2016.”
If things fall right, the Blue Jays have him in the best position to attack 2017 and beyond, too.