By: Rich Arleo 

CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

 

Aaron Sanchez, Pitcher, Toronto Blue Jays

2014 season (Minors): 22 G, 20 GS, 100 1/3 IP, 3.95 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 3 W, 84 SO, 57 BB

2014 season (Majors): 24 G, 0 GS, 33 IP, 1.09 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 2 W, 27 SO, 9 BB

Sometimes it’s best not to mess with a good thing, and Aaron Sanchez in the back end of the Blue Jays’ bullpen near the end of the 2014 season was a very good thing.

Sanchez, ranked as the No. 44 overall prospect by MLB.com, was a first-round pick for the Blue Jays in the 2010 amateur Draft and has had varying success at a number of Minor League levels. The 22-year-old righty, who has mostly started in the Minors, reached Triple-A for the first time last season and had his struggles, posting a 4.19 ERA in eight appearances (six starts). Sanchez was called up to Toronto anyway based on his reputation, and he could not have pitched better as a reliever down the stretch.

Sanchez allowed just four earned runs in 33 innings of work as he was able to let it go not having to worry about pitching deep into games. His fastball averaged 97 MPH as a reliever last season, according to Pitchf/x data on Fangraphs.com. Combined with a sharp curve, Sanchez was able to confound Major League hitters right out of the gate.

While that was all well and good, Sanchez has made it clear he still has his sights set on starting. There are a few problems with this, however. First and foremost is the simple fact that the Blue Jays have a number of starting pitching candidates for the back end of the rotation, including Marco Estrada and Daniel Norris (and Johan Santana as a wild card, though he likely won’t be ready for Opening Day). Along with this, it’s pretty clear that the Blue Jays have confidence in Sanchez near the back of the ‘pen, while they are uncertain if he can start at the Major League level.

For now, Toronto is keeping Sanchez stretched out this spring. His first start wasn’t pretty, as he allowed five runs (two earned) on four hits, including a home run (he allowed just one long ball in his stint with the Blue jays last year) in 1 1/3 innings. While it’s just his first start of spring, he clearly isn’t going to win a rotation spot with performances like that.

The Blue Jays have another closer option in Brett Cecil, a pitcher who found his niche in the bullpen in 2013 after failing as a starter. Cecil saved five games last year, and manager John Gibbons has said that Cecil could do the job, but Gibbons has also mentioned how much he likes Cecil as a left-handed specialist. The lefty also has dealt with left shoulder soreness early on in the spring, and aside from Sanchez, the Blue Jays don’t have many other options at closer.

Like Cecil, who has pitched unequivocally better as a reliever, Sanchez may be best suited as a closer. Sanchez was just 3-7 with a 3.95 ERA starting 20 of 22 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and making such a statistical improvement moving up to the Majors can clearly be credited to his role as a reliever. Like many young pitchers, Sanchez has control issues to deal with (1.35 WHIP in five Minor League seasons), which can be an issue as a closer. But when he gets to let it go and throw his 97-mph fastball and sharp curve as a fresh reliever late in games, he can be deadly.

Sanchez’s role with the team should become clearer in mid-March, but unless something changes drastically, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him placed in the ‘pen. If he is, expect him to be at his most efficient and be right in the mix for saves early on in the season.

 Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo 

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