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Blue Jays take risk, put Aaron Sanchez in starting rotation

Toronto right-hander Aaron Sanchez has had an impressive spring, with 19 strikeouts in 20 innings. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

The Toronto Blue Jays said all along that Aaron Sanchez would get a chance to compete for the team's starting rotation, and the young right-hander earned a spot after a strong spring training that has seen him pitch 20 innings and allow 15 hits with an impressive 19 strikeouts against just three walks.

In his brief major league career, Sanchez has dominated when he pitched out of the bullpen, leading many to believe he's best suited for a relief role. In 54 relief appearances, he's pitched 59⅓ innings with a 1.67 ERA. In 11 outings as a starter in 2015, he posted a 3.55 ERA but with shaky peripherals. Here:

Reliever: 59⅓ IP, 1.67 ERA, .151 average, 46 SO, 16 BB, 2 HR

Starter: 66 IP, 3.55 ERA, .242 average, 42 SO, 37 BB, 8 HR

As a starter, his fastball has averaged an impressive 94.3 mph. As a reliever, he's averaged 96.6 mph. The trouble is that as a starter he has lacked the secondary pitches to finish off batters and has walked too many. This has been an issue throughout his minor league career as well: In 2014, between Double-A and Triple-A, he had 84 strikeouts and 57 walks in 100 innings.

You can trust several years of data or trust 20 innings in spring training. The Blue Jays are trusting those 20 innings, plus whatever improvement he has shown on his curveball and changeup (which he threw only 4 percent of the time last season). Hey, maybe Sanchez has made real strides with his command and secondary pitches. If so, it certainly makes sense to give him another shot in the rotation. As Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told MLB Network this afternoon, "The window sometimes closes on young starters if they don't get a chance to do it. ... We all want to see him as a starter and see what he can do."

Gibbons is probably right there, although we tend to focus on cases like Joba Chamberlain and Neftali Feliz, who went from the bullpen to starting and were injured. It's true that Sanchez could settle in as a dominant late-inning arm like we saw last postseason, but you do want to make sure you have exhausted his chances, and 11 starts isn't enough to completely write him off as a starter.

Gibbons also indicated that the Jays will have to monitor Sanchez's innings, since he threw just 101 last season between the majors and a few games in the minors, and never more than 133 while in the minors.

"Maybe he ends up in the bullpen by the end of the season," Gibbons said.

The Jays have made it clear they won't shut Sanchez down, however. "If you increase it too much, it's probably harmful," Gibbons told MLB.com. "And if, in the end, we need him down in the bullpen, we're that much stronger down there, too. It's not one of those things where he's not going to pitch this year, [that] we'll stop him, like what happened in another place a few years ago. He'll be here pitching."

Sanchez beat out Drew Hutchison, who made 28 starts last year but posted a 5.54 ERA, and veteran Gavin Floyd. Hutchison was reassigned to minor league camp and Floyd will pitch out of the bullpen. Obviously, the Jays feel they have enough bullpen depth without Sanchez -- Drew Storen, Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil and Jesse Chavez, plus a slew of decent candidates for the other spots (Aaron Loup is expected to start the season on the DL with a forearm strain).

Hutchison had an OK spring with a 3.26 ERA and just 11 hits allowed in 19⅓ innings but had a poor 11/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had a solid 2014 in coming back from Tommy John surgery, but right-handed batters blistered him for a .330 average and .522 slugging percentage in 2015. Of course, teams never go an entire season with just five starters, so we'll see Hutchison or Floyd or Chavez likely getting some starts at some point behind Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ.

Prediction for Sanchez? I love the arm, but I just don't see enough evidence that his repertoire plays up as a starter. I think he does end up back in the bullpen by August, and that's likely where he settles in long term.