Significant questions remain for Blue Jays in Sanchez saga

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke about keeping Aaron Sanchez as a starting pitcher and the Blue Jays starting to use a six-man rotation.

HOUSTON – Spare us the hot takes – no one really knows how this is going to turn out. Maybe Aaron Sanchez is the outlier, the rare pitcher who can handle a massive spike in workload without the corresponding risk of injury. Or maybe what the Toronto Blue Jays are doing with their all-star 24-year-old will end in calamity, with consequences that extend well beyond this year. The fact is, with different degrees of education on the matter, everyone is embarking on a type of high-stakes guesswork.

“Look, there’s no perfect answer, there’s no absolute,” general manager Ross Atkins admitted Thursday, after revealing that Sanchez will continue to start in what is now a six-man rotation with the addition of Francisco Liriano. “It’s almost impossible for us to be right unless we win the World Series and he’s healthy. So let’s shoot for that.”

The organization’s about-face is stunning given that Monday, after Liriano’s acquisition, Atkins said the front office concluded that Sanchez’s best chance of helping the team through the World Series was in the bullpen. On Tuesday, speaking with Bob McCown on Sportsnet 590 the FAN, president and CEO Mark Shapiro said, “At some point (Sanchez) is not going to start anymore this year.”

So what prompted Atkins to fly into Houston to meet with Sanchez, manager John Gibbons, pitching coach Pete Walker and others Thursday and shift course? “A couple of things,” said Atkins. “Input from more people, one of those people being Francisco Liriano, who was open to anything and everything, if it meant going to the ‘pen, if it meant a six-man rotation. That opened things up for us to think about things differently. Then talking to Aaron about it, and how strongly he felt about staying in the rotation. Fortunately we’re in a situation where we can continue to do it.”

The decision was welcomed by a clubhouse that wanted Sanchez to keep on starting, the portion of the fan-base angry a transition to the bullpen was ever in the offing, and the right-hander himself, who’s been put through an emotional ringer during a very special season.

Still, nothing is set in stone, and that’s probably the smart play because significant questions remain, ones that come without answers. Sanchez is already at 139.1 innings – six more than his career high established in 2014. Echoing Shapiro’s past statements, Atkins said there’s a threshold at which point the Blue Jays become uncomfortable: “There’s not a scenario where he pitches 220, 230 innings.”

Even with a six-man rotation, Sanchez makes eight starts between now and the regular season’s end, and at just five innings per outing, he’d finish with 180 frames. And the Blue Jays, obviously, are hoping he makes four or five more starts in the playoffs, which would push him near the red line.

How do they keep from crossing the line?

“That’s the question and that’s what we’re focused on and what we’re trying not to do is paint ourselves into a corner and we’re also thinking about all of the alternatives,” said Atkins. “It’s amazing how many ideas have come out of this and they have come from so many different places. The fact that we’re getting closer to September helps. The fact that we will have a player or two with options helps. The fact that our bullpen has corrected and is pitching better, guys are settling into roles, helps. Francisco (Liriano’s) openness (to a number of different roles) helps. We’ll be able to skip starts, we’ll be able to do even more creative things when we get into September.

“We have all of the math, of course. I know many people have done it. Like I said, we’ll get into an area, hopefully we get into that area. He feels good, he’s recovering well, we’re not seeing fatigue in any way and (if) we get into an area that’s unprecedented, we’re hopeful that happens.”

The Blue Jays painted themselves into a corner back in the spring, when they put Sanchez in the rotation with plans for him to eventually transition to the bullpen right around the trade deadline. He’d done it before so the Blue Jays figured he’d be fine making the transition again, as a way to contain his innings, even though the rigours of relieving could have taxed him just as heavily.

Then Sanchez started putting together a Cy Young Award-calibre season, and the notion of pulling him from the rotation felt like lunacy. Not only was he dominating opponents, he was also bouncing back fine between starts. The muscle he added during the off-season helped keep both his velocity, and perhaps more importantly, his release point steady. He didn’t look like someone in danger of injury.

“We laid out a plan in spring training we thought was the perfect plan back then,” said Gibbons. “Sanchie’s been so good and so strong, he hasn’t laboured, so things started changing.”

As the suggestions poured in, the Blue Jays did some research and among the things they looked at was the largest workload increases for young pitchers, not necessarily year-over-year, and also how many innings they platformed off, factoring in age.

Among the pitchers the comparisons for Sanchez were Noah Syndergaard and Jon Lester.

Syndergaard went from 133 innings in 2014 to 198.2 last year, including the post-season, but last month left a start early with what the team described as arm fatigue, regaining form since. He had 456.1 minor-league innings beneath him before making the jump.

Lester threw two-thirds of an inning in his first season of pro ball after getting drafted and then, at age 19, logged 106 frames. He followed that up with seasons of 91.1, 148.1, 128, 153.2 and 142.1 before starting a run of seven 200-inning seasons in eight years.

“We’re confident as long as things go well, that (Sanchez) can get to those levels and hopefully, beyond them,” said Atkins. “We want to be thoughtful with him and, really, we’re going to go start-to-start and make sure that fatigue isn’t setting in, recovery is fine. We were feeling pretty confident that the ‘pen was the solution until the recent acquisition, and what we’ve been consistent in saying that his recovery and fatigue, or lack thereof, and effectiveness is probably the most important piece of the puzzle.”

So the Blue Jays will go to a six-man rotation – with the blessing of the other starters, said Atkins – and will try to live with either a short bench or a short bullpen until rosters expand Sept. 1, hoping they’ve made the right call for this year and beyond.

“If we were just to say what is the absolute best thing for us to win this year and this year alone, then we can just roll the dice, but no one in baseball makes decisions that way,” said Atkins. “You’re always thinking about sustained success and the livelihood of young men.”

Despite the best of intentions, there’s no certainty here, just an educated guess, with a whole lot riding on the outcome.

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