With the arrival of top prospect Aaron Sanchez, the Toronto Blue Jays may have found the piece needed to restore order in their bullpen.
Considered a strength of the team entering the season, the Jays have struggled mightily pitching in relief. Outside of closer Casey Janssen, no one has been a truly reliable option for manager John Gibbons in late-game situations. Collectively, Toronto’s bullpen earned run average sits at 4.54. That’s good for 14th in the American League – yikes.
So what has gone wrong?
An all-star a season ago, left-hander Brett Cecil has come crashing back to earth, posting an ERA approaching four. One of the best lefty specialists in the game last year, Cecil has allowed left-handed batters to hit .275 against him. That’s up from 1.91 in 2013. Steve Delabar, another all-star from last season, is currently pitching in triple-A for the Buffalo Bisons. He is joined there by fellow hard-thrower Sergio Santos, once thought to be the Blue Jays long-term closer.
Behind Janssen, Aaron Loup and Dustin McGowan have emerged as the most trustworthy options in late-game scenarios. These two have had their ups and downs. In many situations, one of them is forced to stay in one batter too long because of the limited options Gibbons has available.
The best example that comes to mind is a game from the recent series against the Los Angeles Angels. In the seventh inning of a one-run game, Loup was called upon to pitch to Kole Calhoun, a left-handed batter. He walked him. The next two batters were Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, two excellent right-handed batters. Last season, it is likely that Delabar or Santos would have come in to face these two. This year, Gibbons was forced to leave his lefty in the game, reserving McGowan for the eighth. Trout hit into a fielder’s choice before Pujols blasted a two-run homer to give the Angels the lead, and ultimately the win. Another trusty arm out of the pen would have made a huge difference in the Jays’ 8-7 loss.
Now enter Aaron Sanchez, who made his major-league debut on Wednesday night against the Boston Red Sox. So a rookie comes into the game, and you figure Toronto either has a healthy lead, or is trailing. Nope, not the case. Sanchez was called for in the seventh inning with the Blue Jays ahead by one run. At least the kid will get to face the bottom of the order, right? Nope, not the case. His task? Go get Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli.
And what did he do with the opportunity? He sat them down. In order. Then he did it again in the next inning. Three up, three down, including two strikeouts. Sanchez showed why he is believed to be one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. The 22-year-old routinely posted 97’s and 98’s on the radar gun, and left teammates, coaches, and the Roger’s Centre crowd drooling over his performance.
“They said ‘Sanchez, you got the next inning,’ and that’s when everything started going a little faster,” Sanchez told Sportsnet’s Barry Davis following the game.
“I just told myself, slow it down, get out there, just act like there’s nobody in the box and do you,” he added.
It is only one game and only two innings of work, but if Sanchez can perform anywhere near that level on a consistent basis, he could be the piece that restores order to Toronto’s bullpen. He is a hard-throwing right hander with a high ground-ball ratio and certainly has the ability to rack up strikeouts. The rookie’s debut gives fans a glimmer of what could be coming, and makes the struggles of Santos and Delabar a little bit easier to swallow.