When it comes to Aaron Sanchez, Toronto has options and none are easy

This isn't The Shutdown. (You can Google "Stephen Strasburg" for more details.) This isn't The Return of the Dark Knight's MCL. (Terry Collins and Matt Harvey could fill you in on that rocking plot synopsis.)

But in its own way, what we have here is another chapter in the same confusing story. The subject this time is Aaron Sanchez, 24-year-old shooting star for the surging Toronto Blue Jays. Now it's him and his team facing the same array of impossible questions as his innings mount, his teammates set their sights on October and the trade deadline looms. Uh-oh!

The good news: Sanchez leads the American League in ERA (at 2.72) in his dazzling, breakout season. The bad news: He's one inning short of his career high, 133.1, set in 2014 during a season spent at Double-A, Triple-A and Toronto.

What happens next is ... Uhhh, who the heck knows?

The Blue Jays have talked since spring training about moving him to the bullpen at some point. So they've known for months this crossroad was coming. What they didn't know was that they could be contemplating a move that no team has ever made.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no starting pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA at least 20 starts into a season has ever turned around to make at least 10 appearances out of the bullpen. So no wonder, now that the Blue Jays' monstrous moment of decision is approaching, we still find ourselves asking:

How will this affect their deadline dealings? How will they juggle the chance to win with their commitment to keeping a great young pitcher healthy? And whatever they do, how will they sell it to their fans, their clubhouse and the rest of their sport -- all of whom are watching closely?

"My job is to go out there and start games until I'm told not to," Sanchez told me earlier this month.

"We're hoping, as players, that it kind of gets re-evaluated," the friendly neighborhood MVP, Josh Donaldson, said that same day.

"Nothing has changed," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said this week. "The whole time, what we've been trying to balance is what's best for the team and what's best for Aaron, and to weigh that against a lot of alternatives."

Hmmm. The storylines sound familiar? Now before we sort through all these questions, there's something you need to keep in mind: Nobody knows the "right" answer.

Medical science doesn't know. No GM, no manager, no pitching coach, no doctor, no pitcher really knows. And whatever happens -- to Aaron Sanchez, to his team, to the front office that will make a call that could change the face of its season --nobody will ever be able to say if it was the right decision or the wrong decision. We'll all play the what-if game. But we'll never know.

Got that? Cool. Now let's tackle the big questions:

How will it affect the deadline?

Too bad it's not last year. Last year at this time, the Blue Jays solved their rotation problems by making a franchise-changing deal for David Price. So if they could just pluck an ace out of the sky again this July and plug him into Sanchez's spot in the rotation, boy, would they save themselves a lot of second-guessing. Not to mention first-guessing.

Except there's no sign they're on the verge of trading for, say, Chris Sale. So Plan B is to trade for, well, pitching -- probably a starter, possibly a reliever. But Atkins is adamant that he can't let the Sanchez decision weigh too heavily into whatever deals his team makes in the next few days.

Asked if his preference is to acquire a starter, the GM replied: "Our preference is to acquire the best piece that can make our team better. But our preference is also to acquire the best piece at the best price.

"I do think that starting pitching is going to be harder to find," he went on. "But even if it would be our preference to have that, we're not going to let Aaron Sanchez factor into that decision."

Nevertheless, other clubs report that the Blue Jays have been one of the most aggressive teams in hunting for a starter in recent days. They've been linked with all sorts of names, ranging from the usual suspects (Rich Hill, Andrew Cashner) to some you'd never see coming (CC Sabathia?). One name to keep an eye on is Philadelphia's Jeremy Hellickson, who at least could provide reasonably dependable innings, for a return they could probably afford.

What options are on the table?

Life is complicated. Baseball is complicated. And this decision is complicated. It might not involve a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery. But it's just as complicated, simply because of Sanchez's innings history (109.2 in 2013 if you include the Arizona Fall League; 133.1 in 2014; and 109.1 last year, if you include the postseason). He's on pace to pitch 205 this season -- without even factoring in October. So what should his team do?

When the Nationals were weighing how to handle Strasburg in 2012, they considered exactly one scenario: Operation Shutdown. But the Blue Jays are viewing their version of that decision as more of a multiple-choice quiz.

So they could ...

Pick a point in August and move Sanchez to a late-inning bullpen role.

(Still likely.)

Let him keep starting every fifth day and pull the plug on his season once he begins to show signs of fatigue.

(Not happening.)

Keep him in the rotation but look for ways to stagger his workload, give him extra rest and/or occasionally skip a start.

(Very much on the drawing board.)

Another, less orthodox plan that Atkins described, simply, as "something more creative."

(You've got us.)

And when will they make this call? Sometime after the deadline, Atkins said, when they know exactly what their options are for potential rotation replacements, bullpen alternatives or some combination of both. So the options will be clearer then. Unfortunately, there will never be a perfect answer.

Will Sanchez get a vote?

This won't be Aaron Sanchez's decision. A year ago, it felt as if the Mets were waiting for Harvey to announce, "I want to start," before they could all move forward. It won't work that way in Toronto.

Sanchez will be part of the conversation, Atkins said. But so will his manager, pitching coach, medical staff, front office and sports science department.

That conversation hasn't happened yet. And when I interviewed Sanchez a couple of weeks ago, he said he had asked pitching coach Pete Walker about this once all season -- then shut it out of his mind.

"I told him, 'I don't want to know,'" Sanchez said. "I said, 'I don't want it to be a distraction. Just let me control what I can control and do what I need to do, and when you're ready to talk about it, then we'll sit down and discuss it.' I said, 'If you don't have it in your minds any time soon, then don't even bother me.'"

But it's obvious the powers that be will be ready to talk about it sooner rather than later. And when they do, their first question will be: "Tell us honestly how you're feeling."

"I feel great," Sanchez said two weeks ago. "I've felt great all year. My body's responded well. Even with the amount of innings I've been logging and as fast as I've logged them, I don't see myself falling off any time soon."

Asked if he had any sort of innings limit in his head, Sanchez gave an enlightened, 21st century answer.

"I try not to look at that," he said. "I try to gauge more off of how my body [feels]. ... I think my body will tell me when I need to stop."

And if he and his team are waiting for his body to tell them when he's feeling fatigued, they have plenty of data that indicates that point hasn't arrived yet. His average month-by-month fastball velocity, according to Pitchf/x and Brooks Baseball, has stayed remarkably consistent:

  • April: 95.34 mph

  • May: 95.05 mph

  • June: 95.89 mph

  • July: 95.26 mph

We've wondered for years when teams would start using more sophisticated data than "innings pitched" to make decisions like this. It has finally happened. Atkins has said repeatedly that the Blue Jays will use as many facets of "today's technology" as possible to look for signs of fatigue. So we can all stop counting innings.

Why is that? Because not all innings are created equal. Because this is a guy who is so efficient that only 10 starters in baseball use fewer pitches per inning than he does (15.0). And because, if you look at a stat ESPN defines as "stressful innings" (30 pitches or more in an inning), Sanchez has had only four of them all season.

So if you see that Sanchez is 12th in baseball in innings pitched, you might say, "Hoo boy." But if you check out pitches thrown and see he ranks just 31st, feel free to say, "Never mind."

Will his teammates get a vote?

It was almost exactly a year ago that the Blue Jays shot a lightning bolt through their franchise with the trades for Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What's hard not to wonder now is this: If they abruptly hook their best pitcher from their rotation in the next couple of weeks, could that decision have the reverse effect?

Asked how big a topic this is in their clubhouse, Donaldson said: "We don't talk about it. We refuse to talk about it, because he's been one of our best starting pitchers.

"So I'm going to pretend that it's not there, because this guy, honestly, has been ... the real deal."

The MVP is well aware that when a team plays deep into October, every player pays a price. Every player pushes his body beyond the point of fatigue. So do Sanchez's teammates understand that there is a balancing act here between what's best for this player's long-term future and what's best for this team? Sure they do. But is that something these players are worrying about as they look at the standings? You know the answer.

"To answer your question, no," Donaldson said. "We don't make those decisions. All of us have our own personal beliefs on how that should go. And I'm not going to sit here and say one is right or one is wrong, because honestly, he's a young guy.

"And you want this guy to be around forever. And sometimes you have to pick your poison. But my personal belief is this: that the way he is going out there and starting is going to tell you whether or not he's getting tired or starting to wear down. And to this point, he hasn't shown any sign of fatigue."

But it isn't just this clubhouse that is watching. The whole sport is watching. And if the Blue Jays take their prospective Game 1 starting pitcher out of their rotation, there are going to be people on other clubs who will view that decision as "Strasburg-esque."

"When you're talking about winning it all," said one NL executive, "you'd better have three legit guys in your rotation, starting with that No. 1. And if the Blue Jays take Aaron Sanchez out of their rotation, they're not that team."

That exec's feelings mirror the sentiments of so many of his peers: This team has to find a way to have Aaron Sanchez in its rotation in September and October.

"They have to be creative to do that," the exec said. "They have to skip some starts and adjust off days ... but they can't go deep without him in their rotation. He has really been That Guy."

So where is this headed?

We seriously doubt the Blue Jays are about to trade for Chris Sale. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be looking closely at Chris Sale -- not to deal for him, but to learn from him.

Not so long ago, Sale was the Chicago White Sox's best pitching prospect. But he wasn't pitching a lot of innings because, like Sanchez, he began his big-league career in the bullpen. So look at how his innings jumped after he moved into the rotation:

  • Age 22 (2011): 71

  • Age 23 (2012): 192

  • Age 24 (2013): 214.1

He has made 77 starts in the 2½ seasons since, averaging 191 innings in the two full seasons. He did miss a few starts in 2014 with a flexor muscle strain, but has shown no aftereffects after a month on the disabled list that year.

So Sale's innings jump was far more pronounced than the one Sanchez could be about to make -- from 133.1 to 109.1 to wherever he ends up this year. The Toronto Blue Jays sure do have a lot to think about.

Their GM isn't ready to say precisely what they're about to do. He just promises they'll be as transparent about the process as any team in this position has ever been.

"We'll work hard to ask a lot of people for their opinions," Atkins said. "We'll gather information. We'll give feedback. And we'll explain the rationale behind all our options."

There's one thing they almost certainly won't be able to do in the days leading up to this trade deadline. And Ross Atkins is already resigned to it.

"No matter what kind of deal we make," he said, "it would be very difficult to upgrade on Aaron Sanchez."