TORONTO â€“ When heâ€™s not rapping in a friendâ€™s video, or hawking a sports drink, or rocking Yeezy kicks, Marcus Stroman volunteers as a personal lobbyist for Aaron Sanchez.
Thatâ€™s the Aaron Sanchez who covets a rotation role with the Toronto Blue Jays. And lest anyone doubt his candidacy, Stroman is hot on the campaign trail for his friend and workout partner.
â€œYeah, a hundred per cent,â€ Stroman said. â€œEvery day in the gym, our slogan was nine every five, the idea of going nine innings every five days. We werenâ€™t doing two-a-days for him to be a reliever. Everything that we did was to go out there and throw 200-plus (innings).â€
Two hundred innings is uncharted territory for this pair, who joined the Jays winter promotional tour in Toronto on Tuesday. They were fresh from seven weeks of grueling, exacting weight-training workouts at Duke University, Stromanâ€™s alma mater. They worked with the same team of doctors and physiotherapists that guided Stroman during his remarkable rebound from knee surgery last summer. Every step in the conditioning process was precisely planned and monitored, with periodic tests to assess progress.
Sanchez says he added 25 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame, which would put him at roughly 225 as spring training looms. Stroman says his buddy has never been in better shape.
â€œWeâ€™ve been working at it pretty hard,â€ Stroman said. â€œHeâ€™s put on some really good weight, and heâ€™s extremely strong in areas where he wasnâ€™t strong in the past. I think youâ€™re going to see a different Aaron this year. Iâ€™m excited to see it, just because I see how heâ€™s moving now, and Iâ€™m throwing with him daily. Itâ€™s just exciting to kind of see the process. I canâ€™t wait to see him out there every fifth day.â€
Stroman, who wore a bulky knee brace as he won all four of his starts down the stretch last season, is the Jaysâ€™ putative ace for 2016. Over an abbreviated two-season career, he has pitched 157.2 innings.
Sanchez has worked 125.1 innings in his two seasons. He opened 2015 as a starter, struggled at first, then went down with strained back muscle just as heâ€™d begun to excel. On his return, the Jays needed him in the bullpen. His ERA was 2.39 in 30 relief outings.
The Jays might need him in the â€˜pen again. Management hasnâ€™t decided just yet, although general manager Ross Atkins stressed recently that the longer a pitcher works in relief, the more difficult it is for him to return to the rotation.
Sanchez has always wanted to start.
â€œThatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve done my entire minor-league career and I want to prove to people here that I can do it,â€ he said.
Echoing Atkinsâ€™ sentiment, Sanchez said he barely used his secondary pitches in relief because he didnâ€™t need to. He throws a darting, sinking fastball that often induced ground balls early in the count. A relieverâ€™s goal is to throw hard and get quick outs.
When thatâ€™s working, â€œitâ€™s hard to even get to the point to come with something other than a heater,â€ Sanchez said.
So in his off-season throwing sessions, he has focused on sharpening his curveball and changeup. He said heâ€™s happy with the state of those pitches and hopes management will give him a chance to stretch out and use them in spring games .
That would seem a logical approach. Sanchez, 23, has always projected as a starter. At this point, the Jays seem unlikely to land another prime starting candidate to join Stroman, Marco Estrada, R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ. (Jesse Sanchez and Drew Hutchison will be in the mix as well.) If Sanchez can harness his control and improve his effectiveness vs. left-handed batters â€“ no small challenges â€“ he might well solidify the rotation.
Stroman and Sanchez became fast friends as Blue Jays and have long fantasized about pitching in the same rotation. But their various injuries and Sanchezâ€™s relief role have put that plan on hold.
â€œObviously we know he can be an unbelievable shutdown reliever,â€ Stroman said, â€œbut I think he has more value as a starter.â€
Knowing Stroman, there will be T-shirts. Under a mug shot of Sanchez, the legend: LET HIM START. Any day now, he first tee â€“ XXL via Priority Post â€“ will land on the doorstep of Ross Atkins.