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Hard-working Sanchez eyes return to '16 form @jonmorosi

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- J.A. Happ is likely to start for the Blue Jays on Opening Day, barring a change in plans over the next two weeks.

That decision won't affect Aaron Sanchez's expectations for his 2018 season.

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- J.A. Happ is likely to start for the Blue Jays on Opening Day, barring a change in plans over the next two weeks.

That decision won't affect Aaron Sanchez's expectations for his 2018 season.

View Full Game Coverage

Sanchez finished seventh in American League Cy Young Award voting two years ago for a team that reached the AL Championship Series. He believes he can perform at that level again this year, after recurring blisters on his right middle finger idled him for much of 2017.

"Absolutely," Sanchez said Tuesday, when asked if a 2016 reprise is realistic. "[If not], then we have a problem. I think -- where I was then to where I'm at now -- there was so much talk about me going to the 'pen that year, I had to get outs quick. I really didn't get the chance to throw offspeed because I knew if I had an OK start, or a subpar start, my chances of going to the bullpen might've been a little bit [quicker], per se.

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"Now that I know I've got a spot on the team, this Spring Training I get a chance to work on my offspeed [pitches and] get them where I need to, in game-like scenarios. It's only up from here. I'm excited, man. I work hard. I work to be the best. Hopefully I can do that this year."

Let's pause and consider two words from that quotation: The best.

Sanchez threw only 36 regular-season innings last year and endured a winter of wondering whether the blister issues would resurface in Spring Training. They haven't. Now he can work on refining the form that led to an AL ERA title in 2016.

Tuesday's results were the latest encouraging sign: Sanchez allowed two earned runs over 4 1/3 innings in a 13-6 win over the Braves, while focusing on the changeup he often neglected two years ago.

"He's been the prize of the organization since they drafted him," manager John Gibbons said. "I think everybody envisioned him to be one of the better pitchers in baseball. ... He's always been motivated to be the best and he's got the talent to do it.

"One thing [that] I think will really put him in the elite class [is] when he gets that curveball going and the changeup, so he's got three things he can throw at any time. He's a great athlete. He fields his position. He holds runners. He does all those things. He's got a chance to be one of the best for a lot of years when it all comes together."

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Happ on Pillar's glove, AL East

While the Blue Jays haven't announced their starting rotation to begin the season, the team is leaning toward having Happ start the March 29 opener against the Yankees, one source told Happ, 35, has never started on Opening Day in the Major Leagues and is both the oldest and most experienced starter in the Toronto rotation.

With Marcus Stroman unavailable to pitch the opener due to shoulder inflammation, Sanchez said he hasn't given much thought to the possibility of receiving the assignment.

"If it is me, I'll take the honor; if it's not me, I'll be cheering them on," Sanchez said. "To me, it really doesn't matter. At the end of the day, us five have to stay together and it starts with Game 1. If it's me, I'm happy. If it ain't, I'm happy."

Sanchez, 25, won't become a free agent until after the 2020 season. But Tuesday, he acknowledged the numerous Blue Jays on expiring contracts when he said, "We all understand here that our window's a little shorter than some teams."

And when Sanchez looks around the clubhouse, he sees more reminders of the team that reached the ALCS in consecutive years than harbingers of last year's fourth-place finish.

Asked if the media is underrating the Blue Jays relative to the division-rival Yankees and Red Sox, Sanchez said, "It's kind of hard. They made so many good moves. I don't like to say underrated, overrated. I think you're going to be surprised with some of the players [we] got this year. The guys we brought over from the Cardinals -- [Randal Grichuk and Aledmys Diaz] -- I love the additions. The Cardinals know how to play baseball the right way. To have that fire here, to have that understanding of the game, maybe it rubs off on some of the guys that have been here and haven't been at an organization like that."

Sanchez added: "I think we're going to be a lot better than the media thinks. But that's just inside here. We try not to put too much thought into that. We know what we've got to do every day. We understand what it takes to get back to the playoffs."

With a healthy, determined Sanchez, that dream isn't far-fetched.

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for

Toronto Blue Jays, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez