Aaron Sanchez wants to be a starter. Most pitchers want to be a starter. Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd want to be starters, too, and they all might deserve it, which is the current conundrum in Toronto. Not that having too many qualified starters is a bad thing, per se, but it presents the team with some tough choices, choices that could complicate things down the line.
At the very least, Toronto can feel good about their depth. The top of their rotation might not match the firepower of their contending peers, but they’ll be sending two seemingly competent starters to the bullpen at the end of Spring Training, with Drew Hutchison heading to the minors as perhaps the eighth starter on the depth chart.
As I’m writing this, I’ve come upon a tweet by Jon Heyman who was present in Blue Jays camp the other day and reported that Chavez is set to the head to the bullpen, so in fact it looks like the last rotation spot is down to two. And Chavez to the pen makes sense anyway; he’s had the worst spring of the three, for what it’s worth, but more importantly, he’s done the swingman thing in the past. Each of the last two years, he’s seamlessly shuffled between relieving and starting — not something everyone can do — and so he doesn’t necessarily need to be stretched out right now to be able to contribute to the rotation later down the line. And Chavez will need to contribute to the rotation later down the line. Pitching is fickle.
So we’ve got Gavin Floyd and Aaron Sanchez, and in that same Heyman tweet I linked, he seemed to suggest Floyd has the leg up on the last spot. Sometimes with Twitter, it’s hard to tell what’s being reported and what’s being speculated, but there’s clearly some sort of sense that Floyd could be the leader in the clubhouse.
It could be as simple as this: Floyd has been superb thus far in Spring Training, and Sanchez was superb in the bullpen last year after bombing as a starter. Floyd also has proven the ability to turn over lineups in the past, albeit four years ago. After appearing in seven games out of the bullpen for the Indians last year, the club was willing to bring him back as a reliever, but Floyd expressed a strong desire to return to a rotation, so he hit free agency in search of a club willing to give him an opportunity to start again.
But while Floyd has been great this spring — 2.19 ERA with 11 strikeouts and three walks in a measly 12 innings — Sanchez has been better. Now, we all know about the conventional wisdom regarding spring stats, and so we know that Sanchez’s 1.35 ERA, while impressive, is mostly meaningless. But strikeout and walk rates stabilize the quickest of any pitcher stats, and Dan Rosenheck’s work in The Economist last year showed that, for the guys at the extreme ends of the spectrum, they can matter a little.
Well, Sanchez has struck out a quarter of all the batters he’s faced this spring. He’s walked just three of 78. Not only does Sanchez have the second-largest sample of any pitcher this spring, he’s got some of the most extreme numbers, and that 3.8% walk rate feels even more significant, given what we know about Sanchez. The problem with Sanchez has never been the stuff, it’s been the command. The fastball, even as a starter, can touch 98. The amount of run he gets on the sinker is sometimes silly. The curveball flashes plus. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to put it over the plate; as a starter last year, Sanchez had a 13% walk rate.
If you can’t throw strikes, you can’t throw strikes. This spring, Sanchez has thrown strikes, and there’s no real way to fake that. The once-lanky hurler, who checked in at 6-4, 200 pounds last year, put on 25 pounds in the offseason in an effort to smooth out his mechanics, and he claims the weight has done wonders. He’s spent the spring focusing on improving his curveball command and developing his third pitch, his changeup, which makes the minuscule walk figure even more impressive — if he’s throwing more breaking and offspeed stuff than usual, you’d probably expect the walk rate to go up before you’d expect it to go down.
Beyond all the spring stuff is the more important consideration, and that’s future role. What is Gavin Floyd’s future role with the Blue Jays? There probably isn’t one. Sanchez is 23, and was just rated the organization’s top prospect by Baseball America two years ago, as a starter. The stuff is undeniable. If Sanchez can stick in a rotation, he’ll provide Toronto with tremendous present and future value. It’s far more important to the organization to know whether Sanchez can stick as a starter than it is to know whether Floyd can stick as a starter. Either could fail in April and put the team in a hole. Either could continue to pitch well. The information on Sanchez is just worth more.
And an Opening Day bullpen assignment for Sanchez feels like a season-long sentence. At that point, it’s tough to go back, unless the team’s comfortable sending one of their most talented pitchers down to the minors during a contending season to get him stretched out to start. He’s stretched out now. Anyone can transition to fewer innings if they struggle. And if that happens, Chavez has proven he can be ready to start on a moment’s notice. Hutchison will be around. Floyd doesn’t have to be a factor in this.
The decision, to me, seems easy, though it appears, at least according to Heyman’s report, that it might not be for the Blue Jays. Between Sanchez and Floyd, Sanchez inarguably has the higher ceiling. Both ought to have similarly low floors. Doesn’t Sanchez deserve the chance? Don’t the Blue Jays have more to gain from knowing what they have in Sanchez before knowing what they have in Floyd? Doesn’t condemning Sanchez to a sixth-inning role in the bullpen complicate matters further by making an in-season return to the rotation exceedingly strenuous? This doesn’t have to be difficult. Just put Aaron Sanchez in the rotation.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.