Blue Jays await Sanchez's arrival after strong spring
Top prospect capped Grapefruit League stay with scoreless performance
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Aaron Sanchez wasn't quite sure what to expect during his first Spring Training with a big league club. The plan was to remain quiet, soak up the experience and try to blend in with everybody else.
It's an understandable mentality for a 21-year-old pitcher who just wants to feel like he belongs with some of the game's biggest stars. Sanchez didn't say a whole lot this spring, but that's just fine, because his performance on the mound said more than words ever could.
Sanchez threw what could possibly turn into his final outing of the Grapefruit League season on Friday afternoon, but before returning to Minor League camp, he made sure to leave a lasting impression not only with his future teammates, but the organization's front office.
"I wouldn't say there were any expectations," Sanchez said after pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings vs. Tampa Bay. "It's good to get my feet wet. Coming into camp, for me, it was to soak everything all in, learn from the veteran guys, just go out and have fun."
Sanchez entered Spring Training as one of the Blue Jays' most hyped prospects in recent memory, and it's easy to see why. He has a mid-90s fastball with nasty sinking action and the type of power curveball of which most pitchers can only dream. Almost everyone in the organization had at least heard his name, but this was the first time a lot of players actually got to watch him pitch.
The early results in Spring Training were impressive, as he didn't allow a run over 6 2/3 innings in his first three appearances. That helped validate the anticipation for his outings, but immediate levels of expectations were also at least somewhat muted, because almost all of his outs came late in games against fellow Minor Leaguers.
Friday's outing vs. Tampa Bay was his first opportunity to face big league competition. The Rays fielded a lineup that closely resembled the one that will be used on Opening Day, and at least on this day, it didn't have an impact on Sanchez's success. He allowed just three hits and struck out two, while throwing 41 of his 72 pitches for strikes.
Whenever there was the slightest hint of trouble, Sanchez was able to use his sinker to generate the much-needed double play. There were three of those vs. the Rays, including one off the bat of All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria. Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said the opposing hitters had a lot of praise for the emerging power right-hander.
"He was facing their 'A' lineup and I was having nothing but good feedback every time the guy was coming around to the next at-bat," Navarro said. "He did a tremendous job.
"They had never seen him, they had never faced him, then they get this young, lanky, tall guy and he's throwing cheese and he has pretty good movement. I think his composure on the mound was pretty good, his demeanour was pretty good, everything around him was pretty good. As a catcher, it's very exciting when you get a guy like that."
Where Sanchez goes from here is still very much in the air. He has yet to pitch above Class A, and the most likely course of action is that he will start the year in Double-A New Hampshire. One of the biggest obstacles this season will be building up his innings limit, because even with an appearance in the Arizona Fall League, he still only threw 109 2/3 innings in 2013.
The Blue Jays typically don't like to increase a pitcher's innings total by more than 20-30 percent from one year to the next. That likely means his workload will have to be closely monitored throughout the course of the season, unless the organization decides to suddenly change its strategy and take the reins off.
Sanchez isn't sure about that. He doesn't know where he'll be pitching in April, doesn't know how many innings will be expected out of him this year and he certainly doesn't know when the Blue Jays plan on eventually letting him make a Major League debut. Most of those things are all out of his control, and the main focus is on the here and now.
"This is what I've worked for my whole life and now that it's right here, I'm trying to go grab it and we'll see how everything shakes out," Sanchez said.
"They haven't told me anything. They just said, 'You get the ball in the next five days, just go out there and have fun.'"
Sanchez could still get one more outing with the big league club before he's sent out to join a Minor League squad, but either way, his time with the Major League Blue Jays is nearing an end. Toronto manager John Gibbons confirmed the obvious early this week, when he ruled out Sanchez as a possibility to make the team out of Spring Training.
But that doesn't mean the organization isn't at least contemplating what it will be like when Sanchez is finally ready. Pitching coach Pete Walker had nothing but praise for his No. 1 prospect after Friday's game, and when asked what Sanchez still needed to work on, the answer was rather simple.
"With him, it's just continuing the process," Walker said. "He's a competitor. He's beginning to get very comfortable in his surroundings. I think when you're young, that's the biggest key. The sooner you can get comfortable and gain that experience, the sooner you get an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues."