PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida – Aaron Sanchez was so impressive on Friday afternoon against the Rays' big league line-up, he had Tampa Bay's hitters giving him props to catcher Dioner Navarro.
"Theyve never seen him," said Navarro. "They've never faced him and they get this young, lanky, tall guy who's throwing cheese and he's got pretty good movement. I think his composure on the mound was pretty good, his demeanour was pretty good, his body language, everything around him was pretty good today."
Sanchez played the role of top prospect, shutting out the Rays over five-and-a-third innings in Toronto's 5-0 win. He allowed three hits, all singles, and walked three, but helped his cause be forcing three double-play balls. One each came off the bats of Evan Longoria and Wil Myers. Sanchez struck out two, his fastball was clocked consistently in the mid-90s and his patented curveball was sharp.
"It was extremely impressive, there's no doubt about it," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "He came out throwing strikes. He was composed. Faced their line-up, I'm sure close to their opening day line-up, faced all their big hitters and certainly handled them pretty well. Pounded the zone, got ahead of the hitters, didn't work from behind in the count, showed an explosive fastball and, like I said, a lot of poise and a lot of ground-ball outs."
Watching Sanchez pitch on Saturday, it's easy to fall in love with his stuff, his composure, and easy to forget about where he is in his career.
The Blue Jays have taken great care, some would say too much care, since drafting him 34th-overall in 2010. He's only 21, turns 22 on Canada Day, and hasn't thrown a pitch in pro ball above High-A Dunedin.
Sanchez hasn't exceeded 100 innings in three pro seasons, although factoring in Arizona Fall League appearances, combined with his time in Dunedin, he tossed 109 2/3 last year. If the Blue Jays increase his innings load by 20 per cent this year, he'd throw approximately 130. A 30 per cent increase and Sanchez would throw about 140 innings.
He authored a 3.34 ERA in 22 appearances, 20 starts, for Dunedin in 2013. His strikeouts per nine innings dropped to 7.8, but that was by design. He's worked to become a better ground ball pitcher, which was evidenced by the double play turns in Friday's game.
It's tempting for a coaching staff that can see the future but knows another failed season likely means it won't be a part of it; a coaching staff which knows there's at least one glaring hole in the current composition of its starting rotation.
"I guess it would be hard not to just from watching and laying eyes on him," said Walker of whether he thinks about Sanchez breaking camp. "But obviously we want to make sure he's ready when the time comes."
He's an affable young man, but also smart. Sanchez doesn't make much noise around the clubhouse; he knows his role as a young player. He's the Blue Jays' top pitching prospect but restricts the projection of swagger and confidence to his mound appearances.
"It's good to get my feet wet," said Sanchez of his first big league camp. "Coming into camp, for me, it was to soak everything all in, learn from the veteran guys, just go out and have fun."
"I think some of the intangible things that you try to look for in young players in an atmosphere that can be uncomfortable at times, you know, is he so reserved? Is he getting involved in the drills and some of the meetings? He's handled himself very well and that says a lot about his character and who he is," said bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who served as manager on Friday.
It remains to be seen whether Sanchez will throw again for the Blue Jays in spring training. Walker will sit down with manager John Gibbons and draw up a schedule.
Sanchez likely starts his season at Double-A New Hampshire. A good showing there and it's next stop, Buffalo.
Or, maybe, Toronto.
There's been open musing in the press box about the idea of Dustin McGowan joining R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and Drew Hutchison in the starting rotation.
Why not cap McGowan at four or five innings as he builds up arm strength and piggyback him with one of two long relievers, either Esmil Rogers or Todd Redmond?
"Still trying to sort through it," said pitching coach Pete Walker when presented with the idea. "Obviously, there's still some time left in spring training. Guys are going to get the ball; get their opportunities to stand out right now. Obviously, Dustin looked great yesterday and Sanchez looked great today and the other guys, Redmond and Rogers, have thrown the ball well. Obviously, we'd like to see [J.A.] Happ pitch well on the 25th and we'll continue to take a look at how it works out."
Walker didn't have the opportunity to speak to McGowan before leaving for Port Charlotte, but said reports are the 31-year-old "felt fine" after throwing three scoreless innings against the Phillies on Thursday.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos is''t shy about scouring the waiver wire for players.
On Thursday, he picked up Matt Tuiasosopo from the Diamondbacks.
"Played well for the Tigers last year and we had good reports on him," said Anthopoulos in a statement. "He gives us a right-handed bat that gives us positional versatility. Obviously, there isn't a lot of time left but he'll come in and compete for a spot."
Time is of the essence and Tuiasosopo is going to need more of it than usual to join the ballclub. He was in Australia, where the Diamondbacks are opening their regular season with two games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It's difficult to see, on the surface, where Tuiasosopo fits in. He's a right-handed bat who got off to a strong start with the Tigers last season, hitting six of his seven home runs before the All-Star break, including four in a personal five-game span between June 18 and July 11. He can play the corner outfield positions, first base and third base in a pinch.
"You're talking about, maybe, from the right side where there could be an option there," said bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
Tuiasosopo hasn't proven he can hit left-handers at the big league level. In 194 at-bats against lefties, Tuiasosopo has hit .196/.287/.345 with eight home runs. Against right-handers, his slash line is .221/.287/.368. Over his major league career, Tuiasosopo has struck out in 31.7 per cent of his big league at-bats.
By comparison, while acknowledging the sample size is small, Moises Sierra hits left-handers at a .267/.327/.478 clip with four home runs.
"Decisions haven't been made, I'm sure of that," said Hale. "I can't speak for Alex and Gibby, but it becomes added depth and we'll see what he's got over these next four or five days left of spring training.”
Like Sierra, Tuiasosopo is out of options, meaning he would first have to pass through waivers before being assigned to the minor leagues.
If the Blue Jays go with an eight-man bullpen to start the season, carrying both is out of the question. The back-up catcher, likely Erik Kratz, and Maicer Izturis must be accounted for, which leaves only one additional roster spot.