Few saw Aaron Sanchez's 2016 campaign coming. In his first big league season as a starter, the 23-year-old posted Cy Young-caliber numbers, leading the AL in ERA and win percentage (.882) while managing the league's ninth-best WHIP (1.17) and win total (15). The right-hander's refined curveball proved a perfect complement to his elite fastball that routinely sat in the mid-90s. Sanchez's biggest battle was his own organization. From the start, Jays upper management declared they would limit his innings and even planned to move him to the bullpen by midseason. However, his unexpected dominance changed things, and he wound up logging 192 regular-season innings with an average of 97.3 pitches per start while notching 23 quality starts (tied for third in the AL) over 30 starts. Including the playoffs, the righty tossed 203.2 frames. He seems ripe to regress, especially considering he only struck out 7.55 per nine innings while walking 2.95. Those peripherals don't jive with such a low ERA and he looks even riskier coming off almost a 100-inning jump.
Sanchez may be held back until the Jays' home opener April 11 against Milwaukee when the team sets its rotation to begin the season, the Toronto Star reports. The Jays have brought Sanchez along slowly this spring, putting him slightly behind the team's other starting pitchers. The home opener will be the Jays' seventh game of 2017, while a pair of off-days built into the schedule will afford him extra rest if desired. Sanchez, who has been working on a changeup this spring, went 3.1 innings against the Orioles on Tuesday, but he struggled with his control and walked four batters despite holding the Baltimore lineup to one run and one hit.
Sanchez pitched 1.2 innings, allowing two runs on three hits and one walk while striking out one in Saturday's game against the Phillies. Sanchez's Grapefruit League debut lasted 31 pitches (19 strikes) and saw his fastball sit comfortably between 96-97 mph. He leaned heavily on his heater as usual, but he also mixed in a series of good curveballs and the occasional changeup, a pitch he's been diligently working on refining. Last year's breakout star used his changeup on less than 10 percent of his deliveries, but hopes to turn the off-speed pitch into a weapon this season.
In an effort to preserve his arm, Sanchez won't appear in any of the team's exhibition games during the first two weeks of spring training, the Toronto Star reports. After pitching his way into the Cy Young race last season, Sanchez was extended far beyond what the Jays' had originally planned for. The team wanted to move the young gun to the bullpen after the All Star break, but that option was thrown out the window when Sanchez turned into their best starter in 2016. With the regular season being 162 games and because spring training is arguably too long, pitching coach Pete Walker is taking imaginative steps to conserve some innings that count for his starting pitcher. "We plan on 200 innings from these guys," Walker said. "So if there's an opportunity for us ... obviously they have to be ready to go at the start of the season, but there is a way that you can kind of ease them into spring training and still get the workload that you need to be ready for the start of the season."
Sanchez will have no pitch-count or innings limitations in 2017, Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com reports. The 24-year-old enjoyed a breakout year with the Blue Jays in 2016, posting a 3.00 ERA and a 15-2 record in 192.0 innings, also earning him a seventh-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. Toronto has eased Sanchez into the majors, skipping some of his starts as the season progressed. Expect him to put together a strong season in 2017 as he will finally be looking forward to a full season without an innings limit.
Sanchez has been working alongside the Jays' high performance team to build lower body strength, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reports. Sanchez has been putting in the extra work at the Jays' Dunedin complex. Through the workouts, the 24-year-old has reportedly improved his vertical jump, range of motion and power. Sanchez put in similar efforts last offseason, and that was rewarded with a career year in 2016 that ended with a seventh-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting.