|Toronto Star photo|
It's been a whirlwind 18 months for Blue Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez.
Tabbed as the prospect they were least willing to give up in the R.A. Dickey deal in December of 2012, Sanchez dealt with shoulder issues in June, and some mechanics issues in July as the club shortened his stride.
By August, prospect evaluators were leaping off the Sanchez bandwagon en masse, as former teammate Noah Syndergaard was on the cusp of the majors, while Sanchez was having control issues in the Florida Stage League.
During his time in the Arizona Fall League, some of the naysayers came back around in their thinking, but there were still concerns about his delivery and high walk rate, despite his 96 mph Fastball and nasty breaking stuff. Those concerns became muted as Sanchez was named the AFL All-Star game starter, giving up only 1 run in his final four starts in the desert.
Flash forward to this spring, and there are many who are terming Sanchez as major league-ready, despite having never pitched above High A ball. So, Sanchez has gone from top prospect to suspect and back.
The Blue Jays, wisely, sent him to minor league camp last week, even despite having dominated Tampa hitters in his final spring training outing. Sanchez has thrown 256 innings in four minor league seasons since being selected in the 1st round of the 2010 draft, and the club decided that despite the concerns about the back end of the rotation, Sanchez, who won't turn 22 until July, needed more seasoning in the minors.
The club has been criticized by some for being too cautious with their pitching prospects, and the club has hinted that there has been some division amongst front office staff about the need to protect young arms versus the need to challenge them.
Bob Elliot of the Toronto Sun is among those who say that Sanchez' time is now, mainly because babying arms like Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, and Drew Hutchison didn't work out all that well, anyway.
Broadcasters Buck Martinez and Bob McCown have also called for Sanchez to break camp with the team. "I see composure, confidence, and a feel for pitching," Martinez told The Fan 590's morning show.
We did some research last year about the so called "year after effect," detailing the rate of injury for pitchers under 25 who pitched 30 or more innings than they did in the previous year, and the data strongly suggests a correlation. Of even more interest is the school of thought that pitch counts are more of an effective guideline in determining when to take a pitcher out of a game. The number of pitches in an inning can be even more specific in helping to prevent an injury: the more pitches a pitcher throws in an inning, the more fatigued he can become, with a resulting increase in the sloppiness of his mechanics.
Sanchez threw a total of 109 innings last year, to High A and mostly Double A (in the AFL) hitters. Respecting the year after effect, Sanchez would have a limit of between 130 and 140 innings this year, and as a fourth or fifth starter, he likely would hit that after about 25 starts. If, by some miracle, the Jays find themselves in a pennant race, they will be faced with the prospect of having to shut their prized young hurler down. And given that his control issues may not necessarily be behind him just yet, he would likely face some long innings with high pitch counts against major league hitters (hello Yankees and Red Sox lineups) who won't offer at his pitches outside of the strike zone. Sanchez was on a strict pitch limit after his stint on the DL in June with shoulder tightness, and averaged a little over 4 innings per start last season. The quantum leap in pitches and innings he would be facing in the majors is a surefire recipe for injury.
Sanchez has had an impressive spring, and he seemed to get better with each outing. We agree that Sanchez does need to be challenged this year, but he needs to start at AA, keeping in line with the organization's philosophy of promoting young pitchers one level at a time. We're also in agreement with The Star's Richard Griffin, who wrote, "He needs to overmatch young hitters at that level, before he takes the next and final step to the major leagues." We would hasten to amend that to having him move up to AAA if the parent club is out of contention at the All-Star break.