By Jeff Louderback
They were called the “Lansing Three.”
Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino were featured attractions in one of the minor leagues’ most formidable rotations last season at low Single-A Lansing. The trio had such a strong bond that they lived together year-round and envisioned the day when they would anchor the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff.
Plans for the young right-handers abruptly changed over the offseason when Syndergaard was traded to the New York Mets in the transaction that yielded R.A. Dickey and Nicolino was shipped to the Miami Marlins as part of a blockbuster trade that saw Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle arrive in Toronto.
The 21-year-old Sanchez, who was a supplemental first round selection (34th overall) out of Barstow (Ca.) High School in 2010, suddenly found himself cast into the role of the organization’s top-ranked prospect. With Syndergaard and Nicolino traded – and another friend, right-handed pitcher and teammate in Lansing, Anthony DeSclafani, also included in the megadeal with the Marlins – Sanchez is the only high-ceiling starting pitching prospect from that vaunted Lansing rotation left in the Blue Jays system.
“It was tough to see them go because we wanted to climb the system together and get to Toronto together,” Sanchez said. “It was unexpected and seemed to happen so fast, but our ultimate goal is to reach the majors. They will just get there in different uniforms.”
Toronto is confident that Sanchez will ascend to the majors wearing a hat adorned with a blue jay and a maple leaf. At advanced Single-A Dunedin this year, Sanchez has a 3.29 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 18 appearances, including 16 starts. In 65.2 innings, he has permitted 44 hits and has 57 strikeouts.
A power pitcher with a 6-foot-4 frame and a mid-90s fast ball, he also incorporates a plus curve ball and a developing change-up that Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LeCava believes will become a plus pitch.
“Obviously, to get the guys we acquired (in the offseason trades), we knew it would require sending quality prospects the other way. Fortunately, our system has depth, and we believe that Aaron is going to develop into a productive Major League starting pitcher,” LeCava said. “He seems to generate velocity with little effort. We see him as a projectable right-hander who will have a mix of three solid pitches.”
The Blue Jays have been captivated by Sanchez since his high school days, and when he was drafted, his parents signed his contract since he was just 17. He opted to begin his pro career instead of pitching at the University of Oregon. Sanchez posted a 2.16 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP in 10 starts between the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays and Auburn of the New York-Penn League. His first full season as a professional was challenging. Over 14 games (including nine starts) at Bluefield (Appalachian League) and Vancouver (Northwest League), Sanchez was tagged with a 5.30 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP.
“I saw a lot of ups and downs that year (2011). For the first time in baseball, I was hit around and that was tough,” Sanchez said. “Looking back, though, it helped me recognize the adjustments that were necessary and contributed to becoming a better all-around pitcher.”
The electricity in Sanchez’s arm has never been doubted. Even in that challenging 2011 campaign, he tallied 56 strikeouts in 54.1 innings and allowed 53 hits. Before this season, command issues plagued Sanchez. Even last year at Lansing – when he logged a 2.49 ERA, a .204 batting average against and 97 strikeouts in 90.1 innings while allowing 64 hits – he issued 51 walks for an unappealing 5.1 walks per nine innings pitched.
This year, Sanchez has shown marked improvement with his command. Opposing hitters have a .189 average against him, and he has cut his walks to 25 in 65.2 innings for a 3.4 walks per nine innings pitched ratio.
“I knew that, to pitch deeper into games and minimize runs, I needed to have harness my command and consistently throw strikes with all my pitches,” Sanchez said. “That has been the most significant improvement I’ve made this season.”
Dunedin pitching coach Darold Knowles agrees. During a start earlier this season, the former major league hurler recalls, Sanchez breezed through an opposing lineup exclusively using his mid to high-90s fast ball. In the dugout between innings, Knowles and Sanchez had a talk.
“I told him that I know he can overpower these hitters all game with his fast ball, but for the sake of development and reaching his ultimate objective of pitching in the majors, he needed to mix in his curve ball and change-up,” Knowles said. “Aaron has major league velocity right now. It’s just a matter of improving his command and effectively using his secondary pitches.”
Sanchez and the Blue Jays received a scare when he spent a month on the disabled list after encountering soreness in his right shoulder during a start against Brevard County on May 18. He was shut down for a week before starting a throwing program and pitching two innings in an extended spring training game before rejoining Dunedin.
Sanchez returned to the mound on June 21 and tossed three scoreless innings, striking out three and allowing one hit against a Daytona Cubs lineup that at the time included top prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. In that game, his first three fast balls read 97, 96 and 98 on the radar gun.
“It was really just a precaution when I was shut down. In the game against Brevard County, my shoulder felt a little tight the first two innings and though my velocity was in the 90s, I didn’t feel much behind my pitches in the third,” Sanchez said. “It did feel reassuring when I made that start at Daytona, hit the high 90s with my fast ball and worked in my curve and change-up. You know that every pitch can be your last pitch, so you want to make sure you feel strong and only return when you are fully ready.”