Dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity

No longer fight­ing for start­ing spot, Sanchez ready to lead Blue Jays ro­ta­tion

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY MELISSA COUTO THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Aaron Sanchez came into spring train­ing this year with a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity than in the past.

For the first time in his ma­jor-league ca­reer, the 24-yearold right-han­der doesn’t have to prove he’s wor­thy of a spot in the Blue Jays’ start­ing ro­ta­tion af­ter his dom­i­nant sea­son last year. He’s us­ing that lack of pres­sure to sharpen his arse­nal.

“The last few years I’ve come in hav­ing to com­pete for a spot,” Sanchez said Wed­nes­day af­ter his first of­fi­cial work­out of the spring. “This year I have the lux­ury of (get­ting) to work on things. I feel like I made tremen­dous strides with my curve­ball last sea­son and even in the off­sea­son so my fo­cus this year is on the change-up.”

Sanchez threw his change-up just 270 times in 2016 — or nine per cent of the time — strik­ing out 10 bat­ters with it, but also giv­ing up seven hits in­clud­ing a home run.

“I don’t want to get too caught up in it,” he said. “Just enough to have that com­fort with it to take it into the reg­u­lar sea­son.”

Sanchez helped an­chor Toronto’s ro­ta­tion last year, go­ing 15-2 with an Amer­i­can Leaguebest 3.00 earned-run av­er­age. And he did it while on an in­nings limit.

Want­ing to pro­tect their young pitcher’s valu­able arm, the or­ga­ni­za­tion de­bated send­ing Sanchez to the bullpen mid­way through the sea­son. His per­for­mance in the ro­ta­tion, how­ever, made the de­ci­sion more dif­fi­cult.

In a com­pro­mise, Toronto opted to man­age his in­nings by skip­ping a few of his starts.

Sanchez fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son with 192 in­nings (plus 11 2/3 in the post-sea­son), more than dou­bling his 2015 to­tal (92 1/3) when he was used as a re­liever for the sec­ond half of the year.

“I think last year I showed lim­i­ta­tions shouldn’t be an is­sue,” Sanchez said. “I’ll leave that up to man­age­ment and how they feel but I’m ready to go. I put the work in and I’m ex­cited to see how this year shakes out.”

Blue Jays man­ager John Gib­bons said he wasn’t wor­ried about Sanchez’s in­nings this sea­son.

“Yeah, I don’t see any lim­i­ta­tions,” Gib­bons said. “He ended up throw­ing a full year last year. He’s a big strong kid, he worked re­ally hard this win­ter. We’re go­ing to mon­i­tor him here in spring train­ing and back him off a lit­tle bit ... we’ll keep an eye on that but he’s good to go. No con­cerns.”

Sanchez came into spring train­ing last year with 25 pounds of mus­cle added to his frame.

While he lost about 15 pounds over the course of the sea­son — he blamed that on travel and the play­offs — he’s back up to his 2016 pre-sea­son weight of 220 pounds.

He’s proud of where he’s at now.

“My job is to come to the field and work out,” Sanchez said. “Ob­vi­ously my reg­i­men was the same as last year — gain as much as I pos­si­bly can. I fin­ished the sea­son a lit­tle bit lower than I did en­ter­ing it, it’s a lit­tle bit of a grind.

“That’s the en­joy­able part of this, notic­ing changes in your body and work­ing hard. It’s fun to me.”

Sanchez will join fel­low righthanders Marco Estrada and Mar­cus Stro­man and left­ies J.A. Happ and Fran­cisco Liri­ano in a start­ing ro­ta­tion that sees all five pitchers re­turn­ing from 2016. Liri­ano, ac­quired by Toronto in a late-sea­son trade, re­places knuck­le­baller R.A. Dickey, who signed a freeagent deal with At­lanta in the off-sea­son.

The 2016 ro­ta­tion, which seemed un­spec­tac­u­lar head­ing into the sea­son, ended up be­ing the Blue Jays’ strength.

Sanchez hopes the 2017 ver­sion can be just as good.

“That was one of the ar­eas that a lot of peo­ple doubted us,” Sanchez said. “We took that with some fire un­der­neath us and we tried to prove to some peo­ple that we were for real about this.

“I think it’s some­thing we’ll try to con­tinue from last year. Ev­ery­body worked ex­tremely hard with this group and hope­fully we can stay healthy like last year and pro­ceed to do the same if not bet­ter.”

CP PHOTO

Toronto Blue Jays start­ing pitcher Aaron Sanchez re­acts af­ter pitch­ing against the Cleve­land In­di­ans in Game 4 of the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Series in Toronto in Oc­to­ber 2016.

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