Sanchez coming along according to plan
* The development of Aaron Sanchez, the top pitching prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, is coming along nicely down on the farm, as the right-hander has posted a 2.98 ERA so far with double-A New Hampshire. ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
Manchester, NH – It’s all going according to plan.
Since the moment the Toronto Blue Jays selected Aaron Sanchez 34th overall in the first round of the 2010 draft, and the high school righty signed with the organization, he’s been on a regimented program.
The idea is to get Sanchez to the big leagues and to get him there ready, so that he can find and maintain success at the highest level. The only problem is that sometimes the arrangement can be frustrating. The plan involves pitch counts, inning limits and occasional disgruntlement at such nuisances.
“Slowly but surely [the plan] is coming out,” New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski said. “He’s on some pitch count restrictions and stuff like that, and that sometimes frustrates him. I’ve got to try to nurture him through that and get him to understand that he had a great spring training with the big league club. He’s very confident when it comes to that.”
Czajkowski and Sanchez are both working together on battling through the limitations set for Toronto’s top prospect. The constraints include not allowing the 21-year-old to go more than 6 1/3 innings in any one outing this season, and three times he has failed to make it through the fifth.
“Yeah, definitely it is [frustrating],” Sanchez said. “But there’s been a plan since the day I was drafted and it’s sticking to the plan. It’s been a little different with a lot of other guys who have come through here, but it’s just what we’ve come up with and it’s a matter of sticking to it. In the end it will all play out for itself.”
The most difficult part of dealing with his short leash for Sanchez appears to be the fact that he can’t help his team in the way that perhaps he feels he should. Those kinds of difficulties are often amplified on a team that has lost 10 straight games.
“The big letdown of finally pitching every day and not really pitching the way he wants to be pitching is a tough mental barrier that he’s going to have to pass,” Czajkowski said. “Fastball command for me is one thing for him. If he can command his fastball and throw it where he wants, he will dominate this league.
“He’s done okay so far, don’t get me wrong. His numbers look okay, but this kid can throw a no-hitter any given day if he keeps that fastball down at the knees.”
In fact, some of his numbers look more than just okay. Through 10 games in the double-A Eastern League, the Fisher Cats’ starter has a 2.98 ERA over 48 1/3 innings. He’s given up just two home runs, has 2.69 groundouts for every flyout, has held opponents to a .202 average while compiling 41 strikeouts.
“The biggest thing is working downhill and staying down,” said Sanchez. “That’s the biggest thing, commanding No. 1; it’s probably the most important thing for me. I’ve got so much movement with such plus velocity that it’s kind of back into that situation where it’s finding how to command the movement with the velocity. That’s what we’ve been working on is attacking hitters and going right after them.”
Coming into the season, Sanchez was able to build off everything he’s done over the last several months in the Arizona Fall League and then at big league spring training with the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida. Though he feels that he temporarily got away from that, he’s confident he’ll find it.
“For the first couple starts, I was really locked in,” Sanchez said. “I just came in off what I did in the fall league and then spring training, and then we started working on a couple things and it wasn’t the way I wanted it to play out for the last couple starts. But for the most part, everything’s fine and I’m just really happy to be here and be part of this team.”
The prestigious fall league is what helped Sanchez most in his jump from the Florida State League to double-A, one that is often considered one of the biggest in the minor leagues.
“Going to the fall league helped me out a lot,” he said. “I didn’t really think there was that big of a jump from last year to this year. Maybe if I had not gone to the fall league before I came here it might have been a little different. But you go to [Arizona] and those are double-A, triple-A, and even guys with some big league time out there playing, so that was a real good thing for me to do before I came here.”
One major difference standing out among the numbers for Sanchez so far in the Eastern League is his walk rate. The hurler has given out more free passes than ever before (30 in 48 1/3 innings), averaging three per start. But the 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty doesn’t think it should be a cause for concern.
“I would say it’s a little bit of everything,” Sanchez said of the increase. “With what we’re trying to do, hitters are being fooled, umpires being fooled, seven-, eight-, nine- or 10-pitch at-bats just happen to go the other way, good pitches they lay off of, and it’s just cumulative of a lot of things. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I’m not really worried about it. All that stuff will fall into place.”
Confident in his abilities and the organization’s plan for him, all Sanchez can do is stick to his game and wait for everything else to fall into place. Having set the bar so high for himself, there are no outside expectations that can put any added pressure on the pitcher.
“I don’t think any of the expectations that have been put on me live up to the ones that I put on myself,” Sanchez said. “For me, it’s just about going out there and executing my pitches and having fun.
“I think I got a little bit away from that with my last couple starts, kind of going out there and a lot of things happening, whether it be pitch count or innings limit, stuff like that. It’s about what I can do with whatever I’ve got and having fun.”
Fun is one thing that Sanchez needs to keep working on. Having had the young ace on his Canadians staff at the end of the 2011 season in Vancouver, Czajkowski is familiar with just how hard Sanchez works on all aspects of his game, allowing the first-year Fisher Cats pitching coach to focus on assisting the young pitcher elsewhere.
“Sanchy, there’s not a guy who works harder in between his starts to prepare himself for his next outing,” Czajkowski said. “It’s the mental thing about him pitching – every once in a while you notice he’ll go through and cruise two or three innings and then all of a sudden he just loses it. How I help him to get back to being locked in and throwing quality pitches has been the challenge on both him and myself.”
Sanchez believes they’re on the right track.
“In the last couple starts, because I was working on so many things and we’ve got the pitch count and then innings limit, I kind of deviated from having a little bit of fun out there,” he said. “But I’m back to where I’m here to have fun and work hard at the same time. Whatever happens is going to happen.”
The right-hander tries to stay away from worrying about things he can’t control, keeping his eye on the prize. What excites him most about his future hasn’t changed since the day he signed his professional contract out of Barstow High School.
“Pitching in Toronto,” he said.
But Sanchez knows things can change very quickly. As the top-ranked prospect on the farm for the Blue Jays, he is a valuable piece when it comes to trade speculation, and seemingly always has been.
During his time in Lansing on a Lugnuts staff that boasted three other highly-ranked pitchers in Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, their names were high on many other teams’ most-wanted lists. And as it turned out, the other three were all a part of Toronto’s big off-season trades two winters ago, with Syndergaard heading to the Mets and the latter two hurlers joining the Marlins.
The last man standing is just trying to stay away from all of that outside conjecture, something he wasn’t able to do during his time in the Midwest League.
“It’s a huge compliment being in talks with almost every trade talk that’s out there,” Sanchez said. “But for me it’s about trying to stay away from it. Obviously it’s always going to be around and guys joke about it here and it’s just about trying to keep that off my table.
“I know in Lansing there were a bunch of trade talks when it was me, Justin and Noah and Anthony there. I kind of got caught up into that and it deviated from what I needed to do out there on the field. I was so caught up in that and so that was a huge help for me, learning from that.
“You can’t control if you’re going to get traded or not, whatever happens is going to happen. For me, and I think for everybody else, it’s just to go out there and do your part and contribute in as many ways as you can.”
After going through trade talks already and seeing the end results, Sanchez’s perspective has changed a little this time around.
“We were one of the most thought-of pitching rotations in the minor leagues that year and to know the next year it’s all gone is kind of crazy,” he said. “You don’t ever know. One day you can be here and the next day you can’t.”
Having formed close relationships with the other pitchers who were shipped off two winters ago, Sanchez has seen what the change of scenery has done for his friends. Nicolino was called up to the double-A Southern League last season and is currently there again. Syndergaard is in triple-A Las Vegas, and DeSclafani has two starts in the big leagues with Miami this season.
“We’ve stayed in touch and we’re all still pretty good friends,” Sanchez said. “I’m going to be in their corner until they’re done with their careers. It’s so awesome to see all the success they’ve had. It’s a little frustrating to know that I was with them [in Lansing] and I wouldn’t say I’m behind, but level-wise, yes.
“But anything can happen at any time so it’s just a matter of being prepared at all times and when it’s your time to go up there, go up there and do your thing.”
While Sanchez prepares and waits for that chance, he will stick to the plan.
- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis