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Sanchez powers past limitations for Blue Jays

Righty ready for a full workload after offseason conditioning program
MLB.com @castrovince

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- If we operate solely off a statistic, then there is arguably no greater pitching injury risk going into 2017 than Aaron Sanchez. In an industry in which the coddling of young arms is commonplace, Sanchez's 70 1/3-inning jump from 2015-16 -- a 52.7-percent leap in his overall workload -- is startling.

But Sanchez, who will make his first appearance of 2017 on Saturday against the Phillies at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is not a statistic. He's a young man who did a tremendous amount of physical work to both ready himself for that workload increase and to also recover from its effects.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- If we operate solely off a statistic, then there is arguably no greater pitching injury risk going into 2017 than Aaron Sanchez. In an industry in which the coddling of young arms is commonplace, Sanchez's 70 1/3-inning jump from 2015-16 -- a 52.7-percent leap in his overall workload -- is startling.

But Sanchez, who will make his first appearance of 2017 on Saturday against the Phillies at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is not a statistic. He's a young man who did a tremendous amount of physical work to both ready himself for that workload increase and to also recover from its effects.

This is a pitcher not content to be a surprise borderline American League Cy Young Award contender last season, but expectant that truly elite standing awaits him. And it is that hunger, and the way the 24-year-old Sanchez applies it, that has convinced the Blue Jays to let Sanchez enter 2017 with no innings limitations, aside from his delayed Grapefruit League debut.

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"When you're making a decision and using all the variables, there's workload, innings, delivery, but to me, the most significant piece is the work ethic," said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. "Not just working hard, but how smart someone is working and how willing they are to use the information to evolve with all the resources available. That's probably why Aaron is not in the danger zone."

Video: Outlook: Sanchez has skills to repeat '16 breakout

The Blue Jays' front office, since the takeover by team president and CEO Mark Shapiro at the end of 2015, has taken a proactive approach to sports science, installing a "High Performance" department in which strength and conditioning, mental skills and nutrition are all under the same umbrella. Sanchez's reformed frame is an early byproduct of the department's efforts.

Last spring, Sanchez reported to camp bearing 20 pounds of added muscle, all the better to serve him in his transition from lights-out reliever to innings-eating starter. To the team's credit, Toronto backed off any plans to affix an arbitrary innings limit to Sanchez. Rather, the Blue Jays worked off both the subjective information of how Sanchez was feeling and the objective data their performance staff could compile on his strength and range of motion as the season evolved.

There were points where Toronto had to play with Sanchez's schedule, most notably when he was briefly optioned to Triple-A Buffalo in August so that he could have an extended break between starts. But the bottom line is that he delivered 192 regular-season innings and 11 2/3 more in the postseason without falling over from fatigue.

Oh, and, backed by one of the most effective power sinkers in the game, Sanchez posted an AL-best 3.00 ERA, .882 winning percentage (15-2) and 0.7 homers-per-nine marks in 30 starts.

Video: TOR@BOS: Sanchez takes no-hitter into the 7th

"I felt like starting was something I was capable of doing," Sanchez said. "I wanted a shot at it. I put the work in to be ready to do this, and I told them that."

This season, the question is not whether Sanchez can succeed as a starter but whether that gigantic innings leap will lead to any lag effect or, worse yet, injury threat. One concern with Sanchez is the late load in his mechanical motion, a stressor on the elbow and shoulder.

But the innings themselves are, to Sanchez, a non-factor.

"I'm not worried," Sanchez said. "Other people might be, but I'm not."

That's because Sanchez intensified his conditioning yet again this past offseason, working with the High Performance staff at the club's Florida facility and again focusing on "good weight." Sanchez said that when you factor in the weight gained prior to 2016, the weight lost over the course of the 162-game grind and the added weight this offseason, he's 25-30 pounds heavier than he was at the end of 2015. But the added bulk has improved, rather than detracted from, his overall athleticism.

Video: HOU@TOR: Sanchez tosses seven strong innings

"His vertical jump, standing broad, he was at a high school level a year ago," Atkins said. "And now he's at an above-average Major League level. In one year, when we add up all the information each step of the way, we feel great about putting Aaron back into the starting rotation and being one of our best starting pitchers."

Sanchez already showed how far a pitcher can come in a single year with his emergence as a starter last season. But he's neither satisfied with his 2016 campaign, nor is he scared about any ill effects that might come from it.

"I don't put my heart and soul into this to be mediocre," Sanchez said. "I try to be great."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Toronto Blue Jays, Aaron Sanchez