Sunday, August 5, 2012

Gaby Sanchez

Gabriel is the second son (Remberto Jr. is his bro) of Remberto and Iliana Sánchez, Cuban emigrants who met as students at Miami Dade JC. With that background, Sánchez is bilingual in Spanish and English, and that's a plus not only in Miami but in the Pittsburgh clubhouse.

Like most kids, Gaby played every game that the Florida fields had to offer. But as a teen entering high school, his dad advised him to pick one sport to focus on, and he chose baseball. Good choice, too - the prep SS led his team, Brito Miami Private School, to the state championship. Sánchez earned first-team All-State honors and was named Dade County’s Player of the Year.

He was a 15th round pick (460th overall) of the Seattle Mariners in the 2002 MLB Draft, but opted to attend the hometown University of Miami, where he'd play alongside guys like Ryan Braun and Jon Jay. The third baseman started as a freshman and had a solid soph season (.316/7/47) at cleanup. The Hurricanes played in the CWS, and he came back as a junior 15 pounds bigger. Sánchez was reinvented as a 1B/OF, but not for long. He broke an unspecified team rule and was suspended for his junior season, working out with the team, but not allowed to play.

Despite that and the fact that some scouts questioned his conditioning and athleticism after the off year, Sánchez was selected in the 4th round (126th overall) of the 2005 draft by his favorite team, the Marlins. They signed him to a $250,000 bonus and sent him to a short season club to begin his pro career.

Sánchez split time at third, first and catcher for the Jamestown Jammers of the NY-Penn League. He made the All-Star team, earning the game MVP award, and capped his minor league debut by winning the batting title with a .355 BA.

The next year saw him briefly in the GCL before being assigned to Greensboro of the South Atlantic League. As a Grasshopper, he hit .317/14/40 in 55 games before being promoted to Jupiter of the High Class A Florida State League. Sánchez only played 16 games for them and 74 total during the year as lingering hand and foot injuries held him back. He primarily played first and caught ten games in 2006.

In 2007, Sánchez put in a full year at Jupiter. He was solid for the Hammerheads with a line of .279/9/70, spending most of his time at first with brief tastes at third and catcher. The big righty showed good gap power with 40 doubles and walked almost as often as he struck out (64/74). Though he wasn't dominating in Class A at age 23, he was showing great plate discipline.

He had his coming out party in 2008 with the AA Carolina Mudcats. Sánchez batted .314/17/92 while taking the Southern League MVP trophy. He remained a patient all-fields hitter with 42 two-baggers and a 69/70 split between walks and whiffs. Florida began working on his versatility as a potential big leaguer, as he shared time between first and third.

In mid-September, Sánchez was called up to the Marlins and made his debut on September 17th. His first cup of coffee in the show netted him eight AB with three hits and 11 innings at first. The rook collected all three hits against Washington on September 24th, his first a two bagger off Tim Redding.

He was invited to the Marlins' 2009 spring camp and dueled Jorge Cantu for the starting first baseman job. Sánchez lost the battle and was optioned to the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs where he would get everyday at-bats and work at both infield corners. He put up a slash of .289/16/56 and yo-yoed between AAA and the show, getting called up for various stints in July, August and September. Sánchez hit .238 with two homers, both as a pinch-hitter, and 3 RBI. He also showed his sharp eye, fanning three times and walking twice in 23 PA.

Going into spring training, he was in a mano-a-mano tussle for first base again, now with Logan Morrison (Cantu had moved to third). Sánchez won the job this time and had a nice season, ending up with a .273/19/85 line. He led all rookies with 85 RBI, 37 doubles, 59 extra base hits and 256 total bases. The 26 year old Sánchez was named to the Baseball America 2010 All-Rookie Team, the 2010 Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team and finished fourth in NL Rookie-of-the-Year voting, behind Buster Posey, Jason Heyward and Jaime Garcia.

But Buc fans might best remember that season as the year Sánchez got it on with Nyjer Morgan. Tempers were hot after Marlins' catcher Brett Hayes suffered a dislocated left shoulder as a result of a collision with Morgan at home plate the night before. In typical Nyjmo fashion, he was called out at the crash site when an old school slide would have easily beaten a high throw.

Chris Volstad avenged his battery mate by plunking Morgan with a pitch the following game. Down 14-3, Morgan stole second and third base, violating several statutes of the unwritten baseball code, and Volstad threw a heater behind him in his next at-bat to express his displeasure. Nyjmo then charged the hill and tossed a punch at the pitcher; Sánchez joined the fray from first base and clotheslined Morgan to the turf. The first sacker wasn't ejected from the contest, but was beaned in his next at bat and later given a three-game suspension by the league. Boys will be boys, even if a little playground wrasslin' and detention are involved.

Sánchez was the lone Marlin rep for the 2011 All-Star Game. He had been named NL Player of the Week in May and was hitting .293 with 22 doubles at the break, a typical Sánchez year. He ended up with a 2011 slash of .266/19/78, but the wheels were beginning to come loose. He hit just .225 after the All-Star hiatus.

The slump carried over to 2012. Hitting below the Mendoza line (.197), Sánchez was demoted to the New Orleans in mid-May. He was recalled three weeks later, but was still hitting .202/3/17 when the Fish traded for Carlos Lee, sealing his fate as a Marlin. Sánchez heard about the Lee deal mid-game while in the dugout, but finished up strong for Miami. He singled the next time he was up, and his last at-bat as a Marlin was a homer on an 0-2 pitch.

It was back to New Orleans for Sánchez until July 31st, when he was traded to the Pirates along with RHP Kyle Kaminska for OF Gorkys Hernández and a sandwich 2013 draft pick. The timing was a little awkward. Married to Miami Herald sports reporter Judy Erwin, the couple had their first child, Sky Michelle Sanchez, a couple of days before the trade.

So what happened to the rising star with the sudden fall? For one thing, some scouts were never completely sold on his package. He hits .296 against southpaws over his career, but just .248 against righties, a fairly sizable split. His stick is his main tool; Sánchez is an average fielder and not much of a runner, and even at the dish, he's more of a gap guy than first base hammer. Some believe with his limited toolkit that he's the classic overachiever.

The biggest difference in the post-2011 All-Star Sánchez is his eye. His OBP dropped 100 points between 2011 and 2012 as his walk rate has plummeted from 15% to 7%. So regaining that discipline at the dish is goal #1 for the Pirate staff.

He doesn't look to be getting pitched any differently, though we haven't seen much of him to tell. But this season, he's had problems dealing with off speed pitches like changes and sliders, per Fangraphs. It shows up in his contact. Sánchez is hitting fewer line drives and more grounders and pop ups, and the weak contact is cutting his batted balls in play rate, never huge to begin with, by 50 points from last year.

From the few at-bats we've seen of him as a Pirate, his swing is a little long and pitchers are working him hard, high and inside, so maybe he's sitting on fastballs and just reacting to off speed stuff. That defensive pose might explain his .118 BA with two strikes this year. We'll see if Gregg Ritchie and Clint Hurdle have any tweaks up their sleeve to get him back on track.

He'll take Casey McGehee's place as the platoon buddy of Garrett Jones at first and righty off the bench; he does have a .296 lifetime average against southpaws. And he earned decent WAR ratings of 2.3 and 3.0 in 2010 and 2011. The FO has faith in him; that supplementary pick was a valuable piece to ship away.

Sánchez comes with a history of production over a couple of seasons, but so did McGehee. Whether he becomes the epitome of a successful change of scenery guy or just another player that had a couple of solid years in the show is the question to be answered.

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