A radical idea for the 2016 Blue Jays rotation

By going a little unconventional the Jays might be able to best utilize two of their young hurlers next year.

By going a little unconventional the Jays might be able to best utilize two of their young hurlers next year.

Yesterday afternoon’s Toronto Blue Jays win marked the much anticipated return of Aaron Sanchez.

The big righty was activated off the disabled list prior to Saturday’s tilt with the Mariners, and tossed one scoreless inning out of the bullpen. I was listening on the radio so didn’t get to see him, but he didn’t walk anybody, though he allowed a hit and – at least according to Jerry Howarth – one of the outs was a fairly loud one.

Following Sanchez’ scoreless eighth, Roberto Osuna continued to be brilliant, striking out a batter in a scoreless ninth.

The team’s decision to move Sanchez to the bullpen isn’t one with which I necessarily agree. The relief corps. seemed to be sorting itself out, with Osuna excelling in the closer’s role, Bo Schultz emerging as a high leverage option, and Brett Cecil figuring things out (seriously, he hasn’t given up an earned run in his last 8.2 innings pitched). Over the past 30 days the bullpen has the eighth best FIP (3.26), seventh best ERA (2.71) in baseball with good strikeout and walk rates (8.25 and 1.77, respectively). They haven’t had a lot of shutdowns (13) but also, perhaps surprisingly, haven’t had a lot of meltdowns either (9).

So for me, the place for Sanchez is back in the rotation, which still has its issues, though it too has been better over the last month or so.

But the team made its decision and we have to live with it. It’s too late now to do anything about it anyway.

My question is, what happens next year?

There has been a bit of confusion over what this move to the bullpen means for the future of Sanchez. Is he now a permanent reliever? Will they give him another chance to start? After all, he was coming around as a starter before the injury. Some of the concern is that Sanchez’ frame can’t hold up to the rigours of a starting role. But that’s a touch ridiculous in my opinion. Outside of a battle with should soreness in 2013 I didn’t come across any injury concerns during his minor league career.

He should be given every opportunity to start, because Sanchez still has the upside of a very valuable starting pitcher.

You know who else who still has the upside of a very good starting pitcher? The aforementioned Roberto Osuna, that’s who.

Looking forward, the problem with both pitchers next year is innings caps. While the Jays don’t subscribe to a hard and fast limit for innings increases they absolutely closely monitor the workloads of their young starters.

After throwing 35 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery last year Osuna has thus far thrown 44.1 in 2015. He’s on pace to throw around 60-70 innings out of the bullpen. To throw him in the rotation straightaway next year is simply not going to happen. There is virtually no way the Jays could feel comfortable going into the season expecting Osuna to at least double this year’s innings total.

For Sanchez, the story is better in some ways, worse in others. He’s thrown 67 innings thus far, and will likely finish at around 85-95, depending on how he’s used. Last year, between the minors and majors, he threw about 140 innings. However, Sanchez went from a starter’s role to a relief role in July 2014, when he was originally called up to the big leagues. He’ll now spend the rest of this season as a reliever. That means, when next April rolls around he’ll have been a reliever for the majority of the past two years, having started only 31 games during that time. It’s not an insurmountable task for him to return to the rotation, but it’s something the Jays brass will have to keep in mind.

On top of all that, taking those two out of the bullpen leaves a gaping hole at the back end of the pen that will need to be addressed.

So, enter my somewhat radical solution: a mid-season switch. It would be unusual, for sure, but having Sanchez start for roughly half the season, and then moving him to the bullpen while stretching out Osuna to take over as a starter. Or vice versa, of course.

It’s tricky, we really don’t know if Osuna will succeed as a starter in the big leagues, he’s never started a game above high-A ball after all. But he has the repertoire and frame to potentially be a very successful starter.

However, both Sanchez and Osuna have shown they belong in the big leagues and keeping them in AAA to manage their innings – the only other realistic option to give them the chance to start – would be wasting bullets.

Since Sanchez is somewhat more proven as a starter, and could probably handle a bigger workload, it’d probably make sense to put Osuna in the rotation to start the season. That way, if he falters ¬†they can move to Sanchez early.

The biggest problem with this plan is stretching out the second half starter. Yesterday on The Fan Mike Wilner suggested it’d take three or so starts to stretch Sanchez back out at this point if the team decided to return him to the rotation. That’s two weeks. It would be problematic but certainly not insurmountable. The team could make the transition around an off-day or ideally at the all star break. With good timing, there would be only minimal impact at the big league level, perhaps as little as having one spot start from a Todd Redmond type.

I’m not sure if this has ever been done, intentionally at least. And there are certainly some optics issues around the fact you’d be telling your young pitcher that he’ll only be a starter for a couple months, no matter how he performs. But it could be the best way to utilize two young hurlers who can be valuable to the Major League squad.

What should the Blue Jays do in the outfield?

Yes, the outfield.

While most of the attention – and rightly so – has been put on the pitching staff for the Toronto Blue Jays, an interesting situation is emerging in the furthest position from the mound. The team’s outfield, both for 2015 and beyond, is going to be an interesting issue to follow in the next four weeks.

Four months ago I figured they were set. Jose Bautista manning right, Michael Saunders in left, and rookie Dalton Pompey in centerfield. Kevin Pillar, meanwhile, was the perfect fourth infielder. He was the next incarnation of Reed Johnson, able to play all three outfield positions, hit and run enough to be useful.

As a rookie, Pompey didn’t really have to do anything special. Hit his weight, play decent defence, and learn the craft of being a big leaguer on the fly.

About that.

Halfway into the season the Jays outfield has never been what it was supposed to. The number of times Pompey has been flanked by both Saunders and Bautista in the Jays outfield so far? Zero.

The thing is, where one idea fails, another succeeds. That guy who was supposed to be the perfect fourth outfielder? Turns out he’s a pretty solid starter. Kevin Pillar has been an average hitter¬†while also being very good both on defence and on the base paths. By doing that he’s been very valuable, putting up a 2.1 fWAR thus far.

While that is a very nice revelation for the Toronto front office, the rest of the outfield has been…uh…a bit of a mess. After dealing with a shoulder injury he really doesn’t seem to have completely gotten over, Bautista has returned to play right field. So, at least for the time being, that’s figured out.

But left field is another situation. Ezequiel Carrera, Danny Valencia, and Chris Colabello have combined to do most of the heavy lifting. Simply put, Colabello’s had a great stretch, but is neither an outfielder nor as good a hitter as he’s shown, Carrera is a stop gap, and Valencia is a lefty mashing infielder.

While pitching does, and should, remain the priority, the outfield remains an issue. The latest I’ve seen on Saunders is that he’s nearing a rehab assignment, and Dalton Pompey has turned it around since being sent to AA New Hampshire.

Should either Saunders or Pompey make their way back to the big leagues and finds success, than this issue goes away really quickly. However, the non-waiver trade deadline is nearing. Saunders won’t be back for another couple weeks, and even if you call Pompey up tomorrow you won’t know what you have by July 31.

So that means taking some calculated risks.

The one possibility is the Jays use Pompey as trade bait. It makes sense, in a…uh…sense. With Pillar showing he’s at least a capable centerfielder, Alex Anthopoulos could feel comfortable using Pompey as the centrepiece of a deal. By solving the pitching situation it becomes much easier to make do with whatever you have in left field. Trading the young Canadian to shore up the pitching, and then having Saunders come back healthy would be just bloody peachy, putting the team in a great position in 2015.

But any decision can’t be made with just this year in mind, no matter how much AA’s job may or may not be on the line (note: I sure hope it’s not). By trading Pompey you’re essentially giving Pillar the job for the foreseeable future. At best, this is what he is, a solid starter. At worst, this is a blip and he goes back to the guy who can’t hit and whose defence isn’t enough to make up for it.

Pompey, while he could still be a flop, also still has the potential to be a star. But he’s nearing the point where he has to start making inroads at the major league level.

What could complicate things, in a good way, is the emergence of Anthony Alford. Having yet to reach 21 years old, the outfielder who finally committed to baseball full time after flirting with his football aspirations, has excelled at two levels in the minors this year. Between Dunedin and Lansing this year he’s hit to a .410 OBP and .842 OPS.

Has he shown enough for the Jays brass to be willing to deal from their outfield depth? Has he shown enough to become an attractive trade piece himself?

The Jays could sure use an upgrade in the pitching staff, either in the bullpen or the rotation. But there aren’t many pieces that both have value and make sense to move. Sure there’s some pitching depth you could move for veteran players, Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman come to mind. But Norris is a nice depth piece who still has tons of upside, and has Hoffman shown enough for either the Jays or an acquiring team to feel comfortable with since his return from Tommy John surgery?

Pompey may be the most movable asset, and yet that all depends on what the front office thinks of both Kevin Pillar and Anthony Alford.