Unshackled ace

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REGINA – Aaron Sanchez looks forward to his freedom on the mound in 2017.

An innings limit, workload reduction and extra rest between starts — all phrases the Toronto Blue Jays’ prized pitching phenom dealt with last season — are in the past. At least he hopes so.

“Taking the ball every fifth day is something that I see happening,” Sanchez said, as he and teammates Devon Travis, Marco Estrada and Kevin Pillar gathered in Regina as part of the team’s Winter Tour.

“I don’t think there are going to be restrictions, but we do have monitor it and be smart with what we’re doing.”

The 24-year-old Sanchez enjoyed a breakout 2016 season, his first full year as a starter. He worked a career-high 202 innings — over 100 more than he logged in 2015 — between the regular season and playoffs.

He was a frontrunner for the American League Cy Young Award last season, an honour not won by a Blue Jays pitcher since Roy Halladay in 2003. But Sanchez saw his workload diminish in the second half of the season in an effort to protect his prized right arm.

At one point in late August, Sanchez was basically shut down for nearly two weeks when he was sent to Class A Dunedin. He later returned to the team in early September for the remainder of the regular season and the duration of the playoffs.

Nonetheless, Sanchez wrapped up his third season in the big leagues with 15 wins and 160 strikeouts — both career highs — with an earned-run average at 3.00 and finished seventh in Cy Young voting.

Teammates feel Sanchez is the true ace the Blue Jays franchise hasn’t had since Halladay, a workhorse who is capable of leading a team similar to Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco or Jon Lester with the Cubs in Chicago.

Devon Travis feels Sanchez is on the cusp on greatness and that last season was just an appetizer for what is to follow. Travis rose through the Detroit Tigers’ farm system before he was traded to Toronto prior to the 2015 season and faced Sanchez several times.

“I told him and every scout that asked me who the toughest pitcher was that I faced — my answer has always been Aaron Sanchez,” Travis said. “He has dynamic stuff… he can definitely carry a team. We saw what he could do last year over a full season and I think that’s just the beginning of his great career.”

The Blue Jays franchise hasn’t seen many true aces, with the exception of Dave Steib, Jimmy Key, Halladay and Roger Clemens. Sanchez speaks highly of those who have come before him and hopes to one day bring a third World Series title to Toronto.

“I strive to be right there alongside those guys, if not on top of them,” Sanchez said. “They’ve set the bar for this organization and being a homegrown player that’s somewhere I strive to get to every day. I’m still learning this game, but I work at it and try to get better every start.”

Blue Jays pitchers and catchers are expected to report for spring training in Dunedin, Fla.,on Feb. 14.

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