The Blue Jays had three of their top pitching prospects -- Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino -- at Class A Lansing last season, where all three kept their ERAs below 3.00 while pitching in a piggybacking system.
But after an offseason that saw the organization trade two of those hurlers away in the megadeal with the Marlins, it became obvious who Toronto valued most out of the bunch. That was Sanchez, who posted a 2.49 ERA and .204 average against for the Lugnuts and entered the 2013 season as the franchise's top and MLB.com's No. 33 overall prospect.
"Last year was really just a foundation year for me," he said. "It was about learning to pitch every fifth day and getting used to doing that for six or seven months. Now that I'm moved on from that, I'm working on building off that and trying to take things to the next level."
So far this season, he's rewarded the Blue Jays for their loyalty.
The 20-year-old right-hander allowed just two hits and one walk and struck out six over 5 1/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night to lead Class A Advanced Dunedin to a 3-1 win over Bradenton at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The victory -- Sanchez's second scoreless outing of the young season -- moved him to 4-0 with a 2.60 ERA through seven starts for the Jays. His 0.87 WHIP ranks second behind only Fort Myers' DJ Baxendale (0.83).
Perhaps the biggest indicator for that success comes from a decreased walk rate. Tuesday's start was the hurler's fourth straight and fifth in seven starts during which he walked just one batter. He's issued free passes at a rate of 2.6 per nine innings, about half of his 5.1 rate from a year ago in Lansing.
"It's absolutely something I've paid attention to," he said. "Obviously I walked quite a few guys last year. It's something the Blue Jays and I wanted to work on this year, and by doing better at it, hopefully it shows I'm taking the things I need to work on seriously."
Thanks to that improved accuracy, Sanchez, who was sporting a fastball-slider-changeup mix, was able to work quickly through the opening innings. After allowing a leadoff single to Alen Hanson in the first, he retired 12 consecutive Marauders -- four on strikeouts -- before Dan Gamache singled to start the fifth.
"I realized at one point that I hadn't put anyone on in a while, but didn't know it was 12 in a row," Sanchez said of the run. "That all comes back to the stuff in between innings. We were able to score [three runs] in the first two innings, and we were able to stick with the same gameplan throughout tonight."
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander struck out Carlos Mesa to start the sixth before making his exit. It was just his second foray into the sixth frame this season as the team continues to build up his stamina. The Jays started out capping his pitches at 75 per outing, but Sanchez admits he pays no attention to the limits placed on him.
"We don't really talk about it at all," he said. "My job is to go as deep as I can every time I'm out there, and when they think it's time to come get me, that's what they'll do. I'm just trying to pitch as long as I can before that happens."
With three of his last four outings going five innings or longer -- he's allowed two runs or fewer in each of those starts -- it looks like Sanchez might be hitting his stride in the Florida State League. What's even scarier for hitters on that circuit -- and even more pleasant for the Jays -- is that he thinks he can only get better from here.
"I'm never satisfied," he said. "I want to be the best I can be each time I step out there. There's always something to work on, so we'll get together tomorrow and see what everyone says I can improve on for next time. Hopefully that one's even better."
Center fielder Andy Burns hit a two-run homer in the first to give the Blue Jays the lead they would never surrender. Marauders third baseman Benji Gonzalez hit a solo homer for his team's only run.