First Pitch: Why Tony Sanchez Spending 2014 in Triple-A Isn’t a Bad Thing

Tony Sanchez will start the 2014 season in Triple-A. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Tony Sanchez will start the 2014 season in Triple-A. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Heading into the 2013 season, I was looking at Tony Sanchez as a guy who would only have value in the majors for his defense. He was showing good defensive skills in the minors, but wasn’t hitting, and that included a lack of power. Perhaps that was due to multiple broken jaws, which caused him to lose a lot of weight and muscle. Or maybe it was that he needed a change in approach. Whatever it was, Sanchez turned things around in 2013.

The catcher saw his hitting and his power return in Indianapolis, with an .872 OPS and ten homers in 260 at-bats. The power actually re-appeared at the end of the 2012 season, where Sanchez hit eight homers in 206 at-bats with Indianapolis. In total, he has 18 homers in 466 at-bats at the Triple-A level, which is about the equivalent of the amount of at-bats he’d have over a full season.

A big reason for the newly added power was his new ability to hit to the opposite field. He displayed this skill today with a double and a home run, both to right field. That ability is also going to serve him well eventually when he’s playing half of his games at PNC Park and using the Clemente Wall as a target. At this point I see Sanchez as a guy who could be very much like Russell Martin, even if it’s only a poor man’s Martin. He’s got strong defense, good pitch framing abilities, and the ability to hit for some power. Even if he doesn’t hit for average, he’ll have enough value to be a starting catcher.

One of the big complaints this off-season has been over the Pirates bringing in Chris Stewart. The move means that Sanchez will start the season back in Triple-A, and will serve as the number three option on the depth charts. The complaint is that the Pirates are blocking Sanchez with a defense-only catcher, thus preventing Sanchez from developing in the majors. There are some decent arguments for this complaint, but if you look at both sides of the issue, it definitely makes sense to keep Sanchez in Triple-A.

The Short-Term Value

People tend to only look at offense, and ignore defense. That’s probably why no one appreciates that Stewart was one of the better backup catchers in baseball in 2013. He had an 0.5 WAR, which tied for 37th among all catchers with 100+ plate appearances. Stewart did this pretty much entirely due to his defense, as he didn’t provide any value with the bat.

Sanchez could probably provide more value at the plate, but he would be limited in his playing time behind Martin. Last year, Pirates backup catchers combined for 212 plate appearances, and that was split between three catchers. The offensive value that Sanchez could bring in that short amount of time probably wouldn’t provide a significant upgrade over the numbers Stewart could provide. Also, teams generally don’t use their backup catcher for pinch hitting, which eliminates the need on most days for a good hitting catcher off the bench.

The Depth Factor

It was only a few years ago that the Pirates ran into a nightmare situation with their catchers. They saw a ton of injuries to guys like Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, and Jason Jaramillo, and had to dig deep for depth, going with guys like Dusty Brown, Matt Pagnozzi, and adding Michael McKenry for cash. The idea that you only need two catchers overlooks what happened in 2011, and ignores how easily that could happen again.

The catcher position is a grind, even if home plate collisions will be banned this year. There has only been one year since 2003 where the Pirates have had the same two catchers all year. That happened in 2012, and the two catchers weren’t exactly good ones — Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry.

The addition of Stewart pushes Sanchez to Triple-A, but Sanchez will eventually be in the majors this year. Having a guy like Sanchez as depth out of Triple-A is a good thing for the strength of the catching position in 2014, and much better than the alternative of having Sanchez in the majors, no Stewart, and one of the minor league signings as the top depth option.

The Long-Term Value

The main benefit of having Sanchez in the majors during the 2014 season is the opportunity for him to work closely with Martin. This tends to be a bit over-stated. I talked with Sanchez about this once, and he said that during the game, Martin is only focused on the game. He does learn from watching Martin, but that’s not exclusive to the regular season. He learns from him in Spring Training. He will learn from him when he’s eventually in the majors this year. He learned from him in 2013. And the thing about these lessons is that they don’t disappear after Sanchez and Martin are no longer working together. Whatever Sanchez learned last year, and this Spring, will still be with him going forward.

There are some downsides to having Sanchez as the backup catcher this year. For one, it removes a year of control. The Pirates could have Sanchez as a backup this year, and under control as a starter for the next five years after the 2014 season. Or they could call him up when needed in 2014, and have him as a starter for the next six years. Last year Sanchez got almost a third of the playing time behind Martin. I don’t think an extra 100 plate appearances in the majors is worth burning a year of control.

Sanchez is also used to being a starter, and he’s finally getting to the point where his hitting is coming along. Last year, Michael McKenry struggled with his hitting, and chalked it up to getting used to the backup role, as opposed to playing every day. That’s not something you want to risk with Sanchez, especially since he’d only be in a backup role for one season. It would be better for him to start every day, continue working on his hitting improvements, and come up as the starter in 2015, or as an injury replacement in 2014.

Sanchez as the Backup

Tony Sanchez would make a good backup catcher this year. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to have him in the majors. The Pirates already have a good backup catcher in Chris Stewart, and the reality is that depth is important, since you usually need more than two catchers during the course of a season. That means that Sanchez probably will be up when needed at some point this year. In the time he’s with Indianapolis, he will probably avoid adding a year of service time, which will keep him under team control longer. He’ll also get more opportunity to continue working on his offense as a starter in the minors.

The Pirates don’t really get much short-term value in Sanchez being in the majors as a backup. They do have good depth with Sanchez as the top depth option out of Indianapolis. And you could argue that any long-term benefits for Sanchez being the backup catcher don’t really out-weigh the long-term benefits of Sanchez getting one more year in Triple-A.

This is a situation the Pirates haven’t seen a lot of in the past. They have a great starting catcher who will probably be lost to free agency following the 2014 season. They have a good backup catcher. They have a prospect who is starting to look like he can take over as the starter in 2015. In the past, the Pirates didn’t have guys like Russell Martin to delay the arrival of Sanchez as a starter. So the path to the majors was easy for those prospects. Now they have good talent in the majors, which means that they will probably be turning to Sanchez a year later than they would have done a few years ago.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered your copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide, you had better act fast. We’re currently on the last case of books. I say that’s the last case because I don’t think I’ll be ordering more this year. Each year I order the books in bulk through the publisher, which allows me to save several dollars per book, and I pass that savings on to you to keep the price of the book low. You’ll still be able to buy the book from the publisher after I sell my supply, but the bulk discount price won’t be included, which means you’ll be paying $25, plus $3.99 for shipping. Right now you can buy the book for $25 shipped on the products page of the site.

**Taiwan is a Baseball Hotbed, and the Pirates are Getting a Strong Presence There

**Spring Training Notes: Stolmy Pimentel and Tony Sanchez Impress

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • piraterican21

    The year that Sanchez played in the AFL he played along Bryce Harper. I remember reading about Sanchez trying to emulate Harper’s swing, which is a very violent swing. Just wondering if that, combine with the injuries set him back a bit. Regardles, AAA is a move that I agree with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    Tim, to counter your point about keeping Sanchez controllable for another season, the Pirates are polluted with promising catchers in the low minors, all of whom have greater upside than Sanchez, and barring catastrophe at least one of them will be ready to take over in 2017. So while this move extends Sanchez’s team control through 2020, it’s unlikely he’ll be around much after 2017 anyway as an increasingly expensive, arbitration-eligible backup to Reese McGuire. Unless the FO is thinking he could be moved to a corner infield spot a la Zeile/Inge/Napoli, in which case, ok, we’ll see.

    The move doesn’t create any additional depth, it just replaces McKenry with Stewart and re-orders the heads on the totem pole (assuming McKenry would have been stashed at AAA, as he had an option remaining).

    An interesting parallel is with Lambo. In Sanchez and Lambo both you have still young, well-regarded former hyped prospects who stalled, rejuvenated, have amassed a season’s worth of AB at AAA, done well despite some warts, and are on the cusp of making the 25-man. One is in a position to do so, the other is not, but had Loney signed with the Pirates, they’d both be in the same boat. Which is why I believe there’s legitimacy to the rumors that the Pirates are still trying to swing a deal for a 1B. I just don’t think NH and company are convinced they’ve both broken out.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      To counter your counter, none of those catchers are guarantees. None of them have played outside of short-season ball. Yes, there are a lot of them, and yes, that increases the probability that the Pirates will get a starter in the future. But there is no guarantee that any of those guys will be better than Sanchez, or will even make it at all.

      That’s a general rule with prospects. You should never plan on a guy making it, unless he’s someone like Gregory Polanco on the verge of arriving in the majors. When you’ve got guys in the lower levels, it’s fine to project them being better (which I do with McGuire over Sanchez), but you can’t make plans with Sanchez as if McGuire is guaranteed to come up in year X as a better catcher.

      • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

        Tim, I agree with the sentiment that you shouldn’t be banking on catchers far away but one of the catchers (assuming he’s meaning McGuire, Mathisen and Jhang) has indeed played above short season ball. Nathisen opened last year as the regular catcher in full season A ball for the West Virginia Power.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          Mathisen did open last year in West Virginia, but he got injured in the first series, and left before the start of May. So technically he has played above short-season, but he hasn’t really spent any significant time above short-season ball to separate himself from the other two. And he’s far from a guarantee, since that limited time produced horrible numbers.

      • buster09

        You have said all that needs to be said on that subject Tim.

      • https://profiles.google.com/100182448651113142116 Mark Ludwig

        Sorry, but I disagree for a few reasons. First – regarding the years of control – the season that we’d be protecting is the 2020 season, when Sanchez would be a 32 year old C. That’s a lot of mileage for a C. You’re right that nobody is a guarantee, but I’m not sure 32 year old Sanchez is that safe of a bet either. So the real question is if you think Sanchez is a better bet at 32 than the collective group of 27 year old Jin-De Jhang, 26 year old Wyatt Mathisen, 25 year old Reese McGuire as well as any other C’s that the team might add to the system over the next 7 years. If that’s the question, I’m taking the field, no questions asked.

        Regarding the other points:

        The short-term benefit seems weak to me. You mention that Stewart is strong defensively, which is true, but so is Sanchez. If you look at the projections and assume equal playing time, Stewart is pegged to be marginally better by Oliver, Sanchez marginally better by Steamer and Sanchez by about half a win (based on PT for a backup C) by ZiPS. None of this is meant to be dispositive since projections are just projections, but it seems like their short-term performances would likely be, at best, a push.

        The depth factor is unconvincing for me, too. If all you’re looking for is 3rd string depth, why is Stewart that much more exciting that a guy like Humberto Quintero, another strong defensive C, who signed a minor league deal in the offseason. Same thing with Taylor Teagarden and Yorvit Torrealba. Minor league deals. I just can’t believe that the team couldn’t find a moderately competent AAAA catcher to go to Indy to fill in on the off chance that they needed a 3rd or 4th C and Carlos Paulino (who was admittedly not very good…though he’s good on D) couldn’t fill in for a week.

        I also can’t agree on the long-term value, either. Sure, working with RussMart would be nice, I guess, but that would be no better than the 3rd reason I think Sanchez and the Pirates benefit down the road from his serving as the backup right now. First and foremost is that I think Sanchez’s development would be better served by allowing him to get experience hitting off of big league pitching. That’s not going to happen if he’s the depth guy. Maybe he’ll get a few ABs but, using last year’s numbers, our 3rd/4th string catchers got a total of just 90 PAs during the season with Stewart getting the Fort’s share. Secondly, if Sanchez is limited to 90 PAs this season, that means he’d go into 2015 with 156 career big league PAs. I don’t see the Pirates being OK with handing the Opening Day job to a 27 year old with such a limited resume, meaning we’d have to go out and spend our few FA dollars on, at least, a part-time starter. Alternatively, I think that if Sanchez spent all of 2014 in Pittsburgh (and, of course, had some level of success) the team would be more willing to name him the starter when Martin leaves after this season when he will be the best C on the open market and price himself out of Pittsburgh.

        I really don’t like the Stewart acquisition…haha

  • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

    I think Sanchez will be far superior to Martin offensively. Defensively, I’m not so sure about that but at least he has some time this year to work on that. I favor saving the year of control and I’m sure we’ll see Tony if and when there is an injury this year.

    The downside is that this offense doesn’t look to be much better than last year and I imagine it will be frustrating watching Stewart hit .208 again. But it does make sense.

    This is probably not “the year” anyways, they will likely take a step back this year before hopefully winning it all next year.

    Let’s Go Bucs!

  • Blue Bomber

    Regarding the catching, does anyone know why the Pirates would not try to re-sign or extend Martin? Sanchez sounds like he’s going to be solid, but for what the Pirates are paying Martin he has to be one of the most under-valued players in MLB. Is there speculation that Martin will cost too much? If he would stay for a reasonable increase, I think the Pirates should be all over extending him.

    • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

      Martin is probably looking at a fairly substantial commitment and probably 3-4 years. Signing catchers into their mid 30s is usually not a sound strategy for small market clubs.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      He’s probably going to cost too much. Brian McCann got 5/$85 M this year. McCann had a 2.7 WAR last year, and Martin had a 4.1 WAR. I don’t know if Martin will get $17 M a year, since defense usually is less valuable than offense. I know he’s not getting $8.5 M a year like the Pirates paid. I’m guessing he could get a five year deal and about $15 M a year. That wouldn’t be a good move to make for the Pirates.

      • Blue Bomber

        No, he would not be worth that for the Pirates. Thanks for the clarification.

      • Andrew

        I do not like McCann, Martin comparison, McCann bring a lot more offensively and could have value as at first or DH, Martin hasn’t provided any offense value since 2008. And Catcher WAR is the least sound of WAR metrics, cannot throw out runners who don’t run.

        Not sure if that was at all relevant, but I think Martin will get less than $15 million a year and do not know why the Pirates would re-sign Martin.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Eh- I tend to agree that its time to bring him up and see how he does. Having a catcher who can provide offense and defense will reduce our tendency to start Russell 6 days a week. 200 plate appearances, which is a reasonable assumption for a backup catcher, in my opinion, is enough to give a signficant upgrade. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother with first base platoons because there are never more than 200 plate appearances vs. lefties for any starting player. I’m just saying whats good for the goose is good for the gander. I don’t want an unproven ML catcher given the starting job, AAA is not the major leagues and there won’t be much of a plan B next year. Additionally, when you have 5 highly ranked prospects, at least 1 of them is going to pan out. Lets be realistic. The argument is sound that when there’s one or two that maybe you shouldn’t count on them, but when you have 4-5, odds are pretty high and regardless, we may draft even more and have them ready or close before his arbitration years are up.

    Tim, I see where you are coming from, I just think the other side is more beneficial for the team in 2014 and 2015- If Tony is ready he should be in the major leagues, this isn’t a team rebuilding anymore.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I don’t follow your logic here. They should bring up Sanchez because they’re platooning first base? You’re arguing entirely based on offense, but defense is very important behind the plate. So it’s not like Stewart brings nothing. His defense is enough to make him a top backup catcher.

      Also, your justification is that they won’t have to start Martin so much. Why? He was one of the best catchers in the league last year. Is there any reason why they should be playing him less than he played last year?

      As for the prospects, they don’t have five highly ranked prospects. They’ve got one highly ranked catching prospect, and a few guys who have potential, but are still raw. So being realistic, you can’t assume that will pan out.

      Finally, if you’re not comfortable with Sanchez being a starter, then 200 at-bats shouldn’t be a big enough sample size to change that view. And the Pirates shouldn’t sacrifice a year of control for Sanchez, and get no real upgrade in the short-term, all to add some comfort going into 2015. We’re really just talking about fan comfort too, since the team usually knows better what they have and when players are ready.

      • buster09

        I watched a Yankees/Rays replay game on their Network a couple of weeks ago. I was from last July,and for a good part of the game,the announcers went on and on about just how good a defensive/pitch framing receiver Chris Stewart is,even replaying him stealing a couple of strikeouts. Comparing him to McKenry as a backup isn’t even a valid point to bring up really.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

    Good morning.

    In reading all this, I get one more reason to like our Pirates. That said, I would like to compare this article and others like it to some of the coverage when Tony Sanchez was drafted.

    As I recall, I heard a lot of birds calling “cheap,” and beating the Buc brass over the head for not taking the best player available… who was probably a Boras client. I remember this whole “signability” climate.

    My how the climate has changed.

    -Wabbit

  • https://profiles.google.com/113824087346904673399 NHPirateFan

    Catchers simply take longer to develop. Sanchez lost part of two years, so last year was huge for him. He will be ready to step in next year, while getting a full year of playing time this year.
    Reality is, Sanchez is the back up this year. If Martin goes down, Sanchez will be the starter with Stewart as the back up to him.
    In that same line, no matter how much you like McGuire, he will spend a year at every level, so he is at best five years away.
    A few years with Sanchez/Stewart are going to be a top 5 NL catching tandem.

  • https://www.facebook.com/steve.peipock Bonds Top Hand

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned, but could end up being a very real possibility. If Sanchez develops even further this year in the first half of the season. And the team feels very comfortable with him, yet realistically they have no chance to extend Martin. You could very well see Martin traded at the deadline to a large market club that has the resources for a market value extension. And if we aren’t competitive at the trade deadline. We could see Martin, Liriano, or a few other players dealt. I don’t think we will be completely out of the playoff picture at the deadline. But sometimes, Player A can make Player B expendable; along with the return of a solid prospect or two.

  • elgaupo

    First, Tim you didn’t mention that Stewart’s WAR of 0.5 was without taking pitch framing into account. Supposedly Stewart is a stellar framer as well, which makes him even more valuable.

    Secondly, watch Martin get injured this year and next off season is another long discussion about Qualifiying Offers.

  • CalipariFan506

    Nobody has mentioned the best reason to keep Sanchez in AAA. To become the personal catchers for Taillon and Kingham for the next six years.

    • smurph

      Good point Calipari. Realistically, as NHpirate fan said, as soon as one of the catchers goes down with an injury (pretty much guaranteed) Sanchez will be with the Pirates. If Martin goes down, he will get about 75% of the starts. If Stewart goes down, he will get maybe 30% of the starts. In the meantime he will be getting regular starts and lots of ABs at Indy. It is a good plan.

  • Andrew

    Chris Stewart wasn’t a back-up last year, 109 games and 340 PAs, if only the Yankees had a better option.

  • MDFitness1975

    Great points Tim. Hard to really counter any of them, That being said, my ideal situation would be this –

    Sanchez makes the opening day roster, and instead of starting once a week, he starts 2 out of every 5 games or so. That would give Sanchez a decent amount of at bats while also keeping Russ Mart fresher for the stretch run. In conjunction, I would show Clint Hurdle the statistical probability of getting “burned” by using your back-up catcher as a pinch hitter (I’d say that MAYBE, a team is forced to use an emergency catcher what, once every decade? For maybe an inning or two? If that?). Anyway, having Sanchez as a usable bat of the bench, would be, in my opinion, a legit asset to this team.

    As for the lack of upper level depth, I would have hung onto The Fort and let him start the year in AAA. But I do see your point, as i too still have occassional nightmares about Dusty Brown’s short tenure as possibly the worst Pirate of my lifetime.

    • Patrick Kelly

      2 games, 2 longballs for Tony. I like Martin as much as the next guy, but I have been a Sanchez fanboy since the draft and was devastated by the 2 broken jaws. Having Martin around this season is a blessing and curse. Selfishly, I want to see Sanchez as the starter now, but he just isn’t going to overtake Martin, especially at the price and in a walk year that, God willing, will lead to a QO and compensation pick next year.

      • Patrick Kelly

        Damn, that wasn’t supposed to be a reply. My bad.

  • buckpoints

    Has there been any thought to try either Martin or Sanchez at First base?