It's been a few weeks since we've looked at the progress of Aaron Sanchez, the Blue Jays top prospect, and although his stock was diminished somewhat this season, and is still considered by most to be among the top 50 prospects in the game.
Sanchez, who lost time to a shoulder injury, blister issues, and battled some control issues, was passed in the eyes of many scouts by former Lansing teammates Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino, who, of course, have moved on to other organizations. The latter two advanced to AA, and while there's no doubt that Sanchez' season didn't go as well as the club had hoped, given the Blue Jays preference for having their young pitchers advance one level at a time as they learn their craft and build arm strength, he may not have advanced to AA even if he had experienced better results (and let's not get too down on him - Sanchez was 4-5 with a 3.34 ERA, and FSL batters hit only .202 against him). Sanchez was limited to 86 IP this season - time lost to the shoulder shutdown cost him between 30 and 40 innings. As a result, he was named to the Jays contingent at Salt River of the Arizona Fall League to make up for some of that lost time.
Kiley McDaniel of Scout.com watched Sanchez pitch earlier in the season as well as in the AFL recently, and he came away a little bit less than impressed. Mc Daniel observes, "I don't love how his delivery is very upper-body heavy but it is controlled and
low-effort, making elite velocity possible due to his size and crazy arm speed." McDaniel admits that all the basic traits of a starter are there for Sanchez, but feels that advanced traits like advanced feel for a changeup and some life to his 94-97 mph fastball are missing. McDaniel, as a result, projects Sanchez as more of a middle of the rotation starter than a potential ace.
And now we can add Keith Law to the list of those about to hop off the Sanchez bandwagon. Up until mid-season, Law still was big on Sanchez, and had him ranked ahead of Syndergaard. Law had hinted this summer that the club was tinkering with both Sanchez' secondary pitches and his delivery. After seeing him in Arizona, Law's impression has dropped, and he expressed the opinion on his "Daily Dish" podcast that Sanchez has "clearly taken a step back," as a result. Law noted that Sanchez' stuff is still there, but his command is not, and he worries that the adjustments the jays have made to delivery will increase his chance of elbow and shoulder injuries. At the same time, Law admits that it was only one scouting look at Sanchez, coming in the first week of play in the AFL, and most players had been off more a month, and may have been scraping the rust off that week.
According to Shi Davidi of Sportsent, the Jays aren't as concerned, and view some of Sanchez' struggles as normal roadblocks on a prospect's path to the majors. Up until this year, Sanchez could rely on his fastball to get hitters out, but as he has climbed the development ladder, the club has put added emphasis on his need to develop his secondary pitches. This would explain some of his control issues (although, as Davidi points out, Sanchez BB/9 decreased by a full walk this year), and a couple of starts where he was mildly roughed up.
Interestingly, Davidi suggests that there is some debate in the Jays front office whether or not they should continue to slowly develop their young (especially high school draftee) pitchers, or challenge them and promote them more aggressively. Everything we've researched leads us to believe that the conservative approach is sounder in the long run. The data suggests that shoulder and elbow injuries among young pitchers tends to decrease between the ages of 23 and 25. Even keeping an eye on pitch counts and innings doesn't necessarily protect against pitcher fatigue - the notion that as a pitcher reaches a certain number of pitches in an inning and reaches his fatigue point, each successive pitch puts an increased possibility of injury. As young pitchers are challenged at higher levels, they might be placed in such situations with more frequency, as they struggle with their secondary pitches and control.
Sanchez struggled somewhat with his control in his first fall outing, and had greater command issues in his second. While it couldn't be classed as a disaster, he lasted only 2 innings, walking a pair, giving up three hits and a hit batsmen, while striking out only 1. Sanchez threw only 21 of his 44 pitches for strikes.
Reason to be worried? Maybe. Jays Assistant GM Tony LaCava mentioned to Davidi that maybe Sanchez is still growing into his body, and learning how to harness the extra velocity. This could also just be a rough patch that all young pitchers go through. Learning how to deal with setbacks and adversity is part of the development process. Syndergaard was tonged in his last start of the season, and Nicolino was roughed up in his final two. It happens.
Much has been made of the AFL being hitter friendly. Fellow prospect Marcus Stroman tweeted that he was having trouble gripping the ball in the dry desert air. Maybe if Nicolino and Syndergaard had gone to Arizona they might be struggling a bit, too.
Sanchez' time in the AFL, brief as it may be, will help give a better indication of what's to come in
the future for him, as well as build up his innings total. We're still looking at a small sample size to this point.