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Baseball Sanchez aiming to join Blue Jays’ rotation with help from Stroman

Toronto Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez, left, and Marcus Stroman take part in the Jays Care Foundation on Jan. 19.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

David Price is gone. After leading Toronto to the playoffs, the 30-year-old former Cy Young Award-winner opted to forsake the Blue Jays for the riches bestowed upon him by the Boston Red Sox.

Gone too is Mark Buehrle, the 36-year-old innings-eater and unofficial den mother to the starting pitching staff whose contract expired at the end of the 2015 Major League Baseball campaign.

While the lefty had nothing left in the tank at the season's end and was left off the playoff roster, Buehrle nevertheless came achingly close to posting his 15th consecutive season with at least 200 innings pitched, falling just 1 1/3 innings shy. His 15 wins also led the staff, and that's nothing to sneer at.

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Together, the departures of Price and Buehrle leave a lot of mound savvy for the defending American League East champions to replace. And when the incoming talent includes J.A. Happ, who hardly set the world ablaze in his previous stint with Toronto, and journeyman Jesse Chavez, no wonder Blue Jays nation is apprehensive about what 2016 may bring.

But fear not, claims Marcus Stroman, who is about to assume a role at the top of the Blue Jays' pitching rotation despite having only 24 career starts under his belt.

"We've got some big things in store for 2016," the 24-year-old Stroman proclaimed, his cockiness already in midseason form with spring training still a month away.

The Toronto leg of the club's promotional cross-Canada winter tour pulled into Rogers Centre on Tuesday for a meet-and-greet with local media. Along with Stroman, fellow pitcher Aaron Sanchez and outfield prospect Dalton Pompey, who hails from nearby Mississauga, Ont., were on hand.

Stroman said he is amped by the prospect of seeing Sanchez claim one of Toronto's starting pitching spots this coming season.

The two have been working out together since November, first at Duke University – Stoman's alma mater in Durham, N.C. – and more recently down in Florida.

The pair have even coined a nifty little phrase to keep them on track and to help drive one another – nine every five. It is a reference to pitching nine innings every fifth day, the lofty standard to which every starter aspires.

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It is certainly what Sanchez is hoping for after establishing himself primarily as a useful arm at the back end of the bullpen during his two seasons of major-league life.

But Sanchez, 23, longs to be a starter, and he believes his chance will come this season now that Drew Storen has arrived in a trade with the Washington Nationals in exchange for outfielder Ben Revere. Storen, who earned 29 saves last season and had 43 back in 2011, could free Sanchez from his bullpen obligations and allow the club to stretch him out as a starter, which is an area of need for the Blue Jays.

Although Ross Atkins, Toronto's new general manager, has not yet laid out exactly how his pitching staff will be used, Sanchez – and Stroman, for that matter– are certainly acting like this is the master plan.

"Starter, 100 per cent," Stroman said when asked what role he envisioned Sanchez playing with the club this season. "Everything we did this year was for that. We didn't work out twice a day for two months for him to be a reliever.

"So he's 100-per-cent ready to go out there and go seven, eight, nine innings every five days. That's kind of been our mentality – nine every five. That's something that we've kind of been saying in the gym. And everything we've done, our preparation, is to start."

"I think that's always been my idea," Sanchez said when asked about his ultimate desire to be a starter.

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The intensive workouts with Stroman has added about 20 pounds to Sanchez's 6-foot-4 frame. He's at 220 now and looks comfortable with the added heft that he hopes will make him more durable in a starting role.

Sanchez was settling into the starting role with Toronto early last season before a strained right lat muscle landed him on the disabled list in June. In his last four starts before the injury, Sanchez posted a record of 2-2 with a 2.57 earned-run average.

Sanchez was sidelined for about seven weeks, and when he returned, it was decided his expertise was required in the bullpen, where he remained for the rest of the year.

Sanchez said the timing of the injury hurt his chances to continue in a starting role. "I felt it was right at the time where I was kind of going to turn a corner," he said. "I felt the previous six starts before that, it got better and better and better and better. It's just unfortunate."

"I think I'll be better," he added. "Hopefully there are no more issues on the health side, which would be great."

As for heading into a new season without Price and Buehrle and still hoping to make another charge into the playoffs, Sanchez echoed Stroman and counselled people not to worry.

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"I feel like this pitching staff, it pitched in playoffs," Sanchez said. "And I think that [adds] a great deal of confidence for everybody. I don't think they should be worried too much about the experience factor or veteran leadership.

"We may be young but playoff experience does help. And I think that's going to benefit every single one of us that's out there, even position players."

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