Aaron Sanchez could be key starter for Blue Jays

TORONTO (AP) Aaron Sanchez spent most of spring training battling to secure the fifth starter's spot in Toronto's rotation.

In the end, he earned the role he coveted by pitching like an ace.

Of course, with the support Sanchez and other Blue Jays pitchers expect to receive from Toronto's loaded lineup, that kind of pitching might not be needed very often.

The booming Blue Jays are led by reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson and sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also have shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Russell Martin.

Last year, Toronto's 891 runs were the most in baseball by a wide margin. They edged the second-best offence, the Yankees, by 127 runs.

Support like that will be a boon to Sanchez, 23, who was named a starter in the final week of camp after going 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in five spring outings. The hard-throwing right-hander, who added 25 pounds to his frame during offseason workouts, had struck out 19 batters and walked just three over 20 spring innings.

''He's earned it,'' manager John Gibbons said. ''Now we'll let him run with it and see what happens.''

Overall, what the Blue Jays really hope will happen this season are even better things than 2015, when they ended a 21-year playoff drought and fell two wins shy of the World Series, losing to Kansas City in the ALCS.

With Bautista and Encarnacion among the nine Blue Jays due for free agency at season's end, there's an attitude of championship or bust around this Toronto team.

Former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, relievers Brett Cecil and Drew Storen, and outfielder Michael Saunders are among the other Blue Jays players headed for free agency.

Although Sanchez will begin the season as a starter, the Blue Jays don't expect him to finish as one. His career high is 92 1/3 innings, set last season when he made 11 starts, then pitched in a setup role after missing seven weeks with a strained muscle in his side. Gibbons said Sanchez will be on an innings limit this season, and will likely return to the bullpen at some point.

''We've got to be smart about this,'' Gibbons said.

In Sanchez, a first-round pick in 2010, the Blue Jays feel they have another potential frontline pitcher to pair with their number one starter, the electric Marcus Stroman.

''Because (Sanchez) was competing for the fifth (spot) doesn't mean he's a fifth starter,'' Gibbons said. ''He's got an overpowering arm.''

Here are some other things to watch with the Blue Jays this season:

HIGH HOPES FOR HAPP: Toronto reacquired J.A. Happ by signing him to a three-year, $36 million contract in November, hoping he'll continue to be the pitcher who went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts for playoff-bound Pittsburgh following a July 31 trade last season. However, six of those seven wins came against teams with losing records, including two each against last-place finishers Cincinnati and Colorado. Happ, who previously pitched for the Blue Jays from 2012 to 2014, has a career 23-26 record in the AL.

INFIELD SHIFT: For the first time, the Blue Jays will play home games on a dirt infield. Work began in February to excavate 12,000 square feet of concrete from Rogers Centre, and the infield and baselines were filled with 12 inches of gravel, sand and clay. Toronto's had been the only stadium in the majors without a dirt infield. It remains one of two, the other being Tampa Bay, that still has an artificial surface.

OSUNA MATATA: Roberto Osuna, who saved 20 games as a rookie in 2015 despite never having pitched above Class-A, beat out Storen to claim the closer's role. Storen, acquired in an offseason trade with Washington, and the left-handed Cecil will be Toronto's primary set-up men.

A SECOND OPTION: Almost forgotten in Toronto's post-deadline surge last season was rookie second baseman Devon Travis, who hit .305 with eight homers and 35 RBIs in 62 games but didn't play again after July 28 because of an injured left shoulder that required offseason surgery and will keep him out until at least May. Once healthy, he'll give the Blue Jays an alternative to defensive whiz Ryan Goins, and could reclaim the leadoff role he excelled in last season.

MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EDGE: Over the offseason, the Blue Jays hired sports psychologist Angus Mugford to be their first-ever director of high performance. They also hired therapist Nikki Huffman, one of the Duke University trainers who helped Stroman make an accelerated return from a torn knee ligament last season.

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Associated Press freelance writer Jeff Odom in Dunedin, Florida, contributed to this report.

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