On Thursday night, preseason consensus top-50 prospect Aaron Sanchez made his first appearance of the season out of the bullpen for the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sanchez’s move to the pen is notable for several reasons, even though he already had 14 relief appearances on his minor league resume (though some of those were from a tandem-starter experiment at Single-A in 2012).
But first, a note on how he performed: poorly. One inning is a woefully small sample to be judging anything from, but Sanchez was touched for two runs on three singles, taking the loss after allowing Pawtucket to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth. It wasn’t all that bad – three singles out of four balls in play is a little fluky – and one of those hits was from an MLB veteran in Shane Victorino, though the pitch was a mistake on Sanchez’ part (right over the plate and a shade above the knees). Still, he caught a lot of the plate on one of the other singles, and his final out was a well-hit liner to short.
Of course, Sanchez also notched two strikeouts and coaxed two swinging strikes, throwing 17 of his 26 pitches for strikes. It wasn’t great, but considering it’s his first time coming out of the pen since almost this exact date a year ago, and his fastball was said to be sitting 96-98 MPH, it’s not cause for disappointment.
But again, it’s one outing, and it’s the process involved here more than the single-outing result that is interesting. Sanchez’s shift to the pen, if it sticks, seems to indicate he’ll be joining the team at some point this season.
Sanchez, 2014 late-season help
The Trevor Rosenthal experiment, as it were, would see Sanchez join the big club late in the season for help in the bullpen, the only way he could possibly contribute this season. The Blue Jays bullpen has been fine – they rank 16th in baseball in workload and wins above replacement – but a 4.39 ERA for the relief corps, 27th in the league, calls for reinforcements.
Here’s a full list of reliable arms in the Jays’ pen: Casey Janssen.
Aaron Loup has been very solid but has already thrown 45 innings, and Todd Redmond has a 2.57 ERA but it feels largely unsustainable watching him pitch (or looking at his 4.31 xFIP and 2.8 percent HR/FB rate at Rogers Centre). Brett Cecil is a nice, serviceable second lefty, and I’ll never waver from thinking Sergio Santos has all the makings of a great reliever (note: I am alone in this, and all 2014 evidence is to the contrary). And then there’s Dustin McGowan, who is a great story but has a 5.18 FIP out of the pen and with 61 innings of work this year, can’t realistically be relied on long-term. Reinforcements would help.
As an in-house guy, Sanchez would still come at a cost to the team. He’s not on the 40-man roster, so a call-up means someone else loses a spot (or hits the disabled list), and if things don’t go smoothly the team risks burning an option year for a few back-end innings of support. His service time clock also gets turned on, though thinking of such a thing for a cup of coffee is probably a little too farsighted.
Would Sanchez help? Well, maybe. He has warts, and his strikeout rate has steadily declined during his time as a pro, all the while his walk rate hasn’t been trimmed at all. In 99.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this year, he’s struck out just 19.5 percent of batters and walked 13.2 percent, a K-BB rate that would have him in a group with Carlos Marmol, McGowan and Juan Nicasio at the major league level. Major league pitchers with at least 10 innings and a K-BB rate between six and seven had an average ERA of 5.00 with a 4.92 FIP. You can strike guys out, or you can not walk guys, but there’s not a lot of room for error in between.
Still, he’s a live arm, and while a move to the bullpen wouldn’t fix his issues long-term, it’s conceivable that dialing up the fastball more and moving to a two-pitch mix would improve his performance. Of course, the same argument was made for Rosenthal’s teammate Carlos Martinez, who also throws gas but doesn’t get the strikeouts you’d expect from that kind of velocity, and moving to the bullpen didn’t help Martinez turn into a good pitcher.
The move might work, or it might not. If the alternative is trading an asset for an “established” bullpen arm, and if the team sees him making the big league roster at some point in 2015 anyway, then this probably isn’t a bad move; if he’s terrible, they can always send him back to Triple-A.
The move to the bullpen probably doesn’t have much to do with Sanchez’s own innings cap, as his inability to go deep into games has kept him on a slow burn, though he did pitch just 109.2 frames in 2013.
Even if he kept starting at Triple-A, he’d only project to wind up around 150 innings, a good jump from 2013 but a manageable number to be sure.
Instead, Sanchez’s addition may point to the Jays wanting a few additional arms ready to contribute at the major league level. It wouldn’t make sense to move Sanchez to the bullpen and then stretch him back out later, but there’s value in seeing if he can be successful in a relief role. The Jays have three arms currently contributing who could hit the wall at any point, and another that some are still expecting to come back and contribute at some point (here’s how I feel about that):
|Pitcher||2012 IP||2013 IP||2014 IP|
While there’s no confirmed innings limit for any of them to my knowledge, the Jays’ pitching staff – long thought a weakness and surviving in what feels like tenuous fashion – seems poised to have pieces taken away rather than added. If ownership isn’t on board with spending more money for a playoff push, or the seller’s market isn’t bearing fruit at reasonable prices, having Sanchez transition to a relief role expands the team’s option set for late in the season. It’s worth noting that the team has also transitioned Kyle Drabek to the bullpen, likely with similar reasoning (though Drabek is a year removed from Tommy John Surgery, so the innings are a real factor for him).
Everything matters at the margins in a tight race, and this seems a low-risk move.
The most negative of Jays fans (and ghouls) would tell you that Sanchez is going to end up a reliever in the long run, anyway, given his declining strikeout rates and struggles with command. I don’t at all think that’s in play here, even if it’s not an outlandish suggestion. Sanchez is still just 22 years old. You let a top prospect like this fail as a starter before you think bullpen long-term; this is probably all about 2014.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.