Storen in 'pen gives Sanchez chance to start

Right-hander seems to be favorite for Blue Jays' final rotation spot, but he knows he has to earn it

March 2nd, 2016

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Aaron Sanchez seems to be the leading candidate to win the final spot in Toronto's starting rotation, but it never would have been possible without the Blue Jays' acquisition of reliever Drew Storen.

Sanchez was destined for another year in the bullpen until Toronto traded outfielder Ben Revere to the Nationals for Storen. It wasn't that the Blue Jays didn't think Sanchez could start, but until Storen arrived, the club simply couldn't afford to lose another late-inning piece.

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The Blue Jays spent the offseason talking about a desire to build a pitching staff with a lot of versatile arms. Storen doesn't fit into that category as a one-inning reliever, but his presence alone has increased Toronto's options this spring.

"Probably not, to answer that honestly," Gibbons said when asked if the club could have used Sanchez in the rotation prior to Storen's arrival. "That would have been a big, big hole. We really like the way things stack up. Any time you can add, in Storen's case, an elite reliever, you've got to be that much better."

That will come as welcome news for Sanchez because his preference all along has been to start. He willingly moved to the bullpen during each of the past two seasons, but he came up through the Minor Leagues as a starter, and that's the role he wants to keep.

Despite the high expectations, Sanchez, who allowed one run on three hits and struck out three in two innings in Wednesday's 4-4 tie with the Phillies, hasn't been guaranteed anything this spring. He appears to be the favorite, but the 23-year-old also faces competition from a small group of potential starters that includes Drew Hutchison, Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez.

Sanchez knew that would be the case coming into Spring Training, and that's one of the main reasons he added 20-plus pounds of muscle during the offseason. He wanted to prove that not only could he win the job, but he also could become a reliable starter who is durable enough to make 30-plus starts during the regular season.

"That was the plan," Sanchez said. "Nobody knows, but that's my goal, is to go out there and make 30 starts, get to 200 innings, but we'll see how that plays out.

"When we lost in Game 6 [of the American League Championship Series], my mind was already on being a starter, so I didn't really care regardless of the [Storen] trade. I obviously do care that he's on our team and that he's here with us, but I don't think my mentality has ever been in the 'pen since last year."

Sanchez began 2015 in the rotation but struggled with his command early on, and a high number of walks led to some issues on the mound and questions about whether he would ever make it in the big leagues as a starter.

Those concerns slowly but surely went away. During a stretch of five starts in May, Sanchez improved his walk total every outing from six, five, four, three and all the way down to two. Shortly after that, the lack of durability caught up to him as Sanchez was placed on the disabled list with a lat strain, and when he returned later in the year, it was as a reliever.

Sanchez's stint as a starter lasted less than two months, but it was still enough for the Blue Jays to be enticed about using him there in the future.

"That was one of the things he battled in the Minor Leagues," Gibbons said in reference to the command issues. "Guys when they're young and they have great arms like that, command is normally always the issue.

"Over time, they learn how to refine some things and learn how to repeat their mechanics, and that usually takes care of that. But he was on a nice little roll before he got hurt. You could see outing to outing he was probably at the time our hottest pitcher and most consistent at that time. Then, of course, he had the unfortunate injury."