Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tony Sanchez

It was a long and winding road, but Tony Sanchez has finally made it to PNC Park.

After a stellar career at Boston College, where he was a finalist for the Johnny Bench award, the Miami native was selected fourth overall in the 2009 MLB draft, becoming the highest draft pick in Eagle history. Widely panned by the Bucco faithful as a blue-light special and ranked as a late first-rounder on projectability by the baseball services, the FO differed. Their scouting people had no consensus past the top two picks, pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Dustin Ackley, and the catcher was third on their board.

The Bucs didn't believe anyone past Strasburg and Ackley would be worth a fat bonus, and they had plans to allocate the draft budget to collecting overslot prep arms. In hindsight, they did pass on Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, Mike Leake, Shelby Miller and Mike Trout, but they did get a highly ranked catcher, a premium position, who came with some offensive questions but a fairly complete defensive package.

The club had a pre-draft deal worked out with Sanchez and he signed three days after being selected for $2.5M, about slot. Because of the quick contract, he got to see considerable pro playing time, getting 175 AB in three different levels and hitting .309.

After that early success, he missed most of the 2010 season with a broken jaw after getting hit by a pitch. When he returned in 2011, he struggled at Altoona and capped the year with an off-season bar brawl. Starting 2012 with the Curve again, he hit for a decent average (.277) with just gap power. Sanchez was promoted to Indy, where his average dropped to .233, but he banged eight homers. He couldn't quite find a happy medium at the dish.

This year, he seemed to find that warm and fuzzy place with the Tribe, hitting .288 with 10 homers and landing a spot on the International League All-Star roster. The Bucs had him on the taxi squad for a day in May in a meet-and-greet. He got a little more action in June, playing a couple of games in AL parks as a DH. He collected his first hit in his first at bat, doubling off the Angels' Joe Blanton and infamously gluing the ball to the scoreboard. Then it was back down.

Mike McKenry was having some serious trouble with his stick, and the hue and cry was raised for Sanchez to join the bench about that time. The Bucs again went against the flow, opting for him to get regular at-bats and innings in AAA, something he wouldn't see in Pittsburgh behind Russ Martin.

Ironically, just as The Fort's bat began to heat up, a hard slide into second tore his meniscus, and he was out for the year following surgery. So at age 25, Tony Sanchez arrived for his first extended stay in the show.

Time will tell how his bat will play; the hardest transition between the minors and MLB is hitting just twice a week instead of every day. His receiving has been as advertised so far. Four wild pitches in 27 innings is high, but we think that will work out as he gets used to the Bucs' penchant to bounce sliders as chase pitches. He did have a very good effort yesterday, blocking three balls in one at bat with runners aboard. No one has tried to steal against him yet (he started twice against St. Louis, which doesn't run, and yesterday with LHP Liriano on the hill), so his arm hasn't been put to the test.

His pitch selection looked fine. Brandon Cumpton's best game came with his regular battery mate behind the dish. Tony also worked a lot more off speed stuff when he caught Vic Black, so it looks like when he gets familiar with the pitchers, as he was with Cumpton and Black, that he'll have his own tweaks to add to the game planning. Beside the calling the game, Sanchez showed the unpublicized ability to frame pitches, pulling in a couple of calls per game.

We like that he's serving as Martin's understudy. We see a lot of similarities in the athleticism, defense and attitude, making Russ a simpatico role model and tutor. Of course, it's too soon to tell what path Tony Sanchez will travel. We can already see in his brief appearances that he's not out of place catching in the show, so his bat will be the difference maker. He's ready, even if his stick isn't, to join the legion of good glove guys that make a pretty nice living in the majors.

But you know who he's cloned as a hitter in his minor league career? Yep, his mentor, Russ Martin. In five farm seasons, Tony had 1,628 PA with a line of .272/.366/.422 and 34 HR; Russ spent five seasons in the minors, getting 1,587 PA with a line of .281/.391/.419, banging 33 homers (and that's with a year in the PCL). So that's the other road he could follow - and that would end up a pretty good path for Sanchez and the Pirates.

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