First Pitch: Can Tony Sanchez Win a Spot on the Major League Roster?

Tony Sanchez has been impressive this Spring. It’s not so much the hitting, which continued tonight with a two-run homer. The hitting has been there the last few years, showing some positive signs, and some flashes of opposite field power like he displayed against the Tigers.

The impressive thing has been his defense, and specifically his throwing. Pete Ellis wrote a great article over the weekend, detailing how Sanchez worked this off-season to fix those issues. As I said, the offense picked up the last few years. He has always excelled at blocking pitches, and his pitch framing is rated well. The big issue has been his throwing problems, which have been a huge liability in recent years, even on simple throws back to the pitcher or to third base after a strikeout.

I’ve reviewed all of the video in the past of Sanchez and his throwing issues. I’ve seen the problems in person. And I’ve been watching him this Spring. What I’ve seen is a much improved player in that area, and it doesn’t look like a small sample size issue. Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle has noticed Sanchez as well.

“Tony has worked hard,” Hurdle said after tonight’s game. “He’s dealt with some adversity. He’s had to push through some things. He’s battled. I do think there’s a point in time where a player says ‘I’ve got to get after it.’ He’s been the first one to tell you, he’s kind of created an opportunity for others at times.”

A.J. Burnett also had praise for Sanchez, saying that he loved him behind the plate.

“The way he blocks balls is a ton better,” Burnett said of the difference in Sanchez’s game since 2013. “He was always pretty good at it. I think the way he goes about it now, he’s really starting to pay attention to his pitchers…he blocked some good hooks today in good situations.”

The problem is that Sanchez has created a situation where he’s stuck in limbo. When he was drafted in 2009, he was seen as the catcher of the future, possibly by 2013. That didn’t happen, and the Pirates signed Russell Martin. Sanchez wasn’t ready again this off-season, so they went out and added Francisco Cervelli, while adding Chris Stewart as a backup in 2013.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, the struggles from Sanchez have opened the door for another catching prospect to step up. Elias Diaz did that in a big way last year, adding some strong hitting to what was already a strong defensive package behind the plate. Diaz is now the top catching prospect in the upper levels, passing Sanchez. The Pirates gave him the priority for playing time behind the plate last year, moving Sanchez to first base. But Sanchez didn’t give up, and the early signs are that he made the necessary improvements.

Sanchez is in a situation where he needs an injury in the majors to get a shot to prove himself as a backup. He has also fallen behind Diaz, which means he won’t get the bulk of the workload in Indianapolis. He basically needs an early season injury in the majors to have a shot at working his way back into the picture.

Chris Stewart is currently dealing with a hamstring issue, and Hurdle said tonight that it hasn’t improved. That could be the key for Sanchez to open the season in Pittsburgh, and possibly try to win a long-term job. His offense hasn’t been outstanding in his limited time in the majors, but his .680 OPS beats the career .595 mark from Stewart. If the new defensive improvements stick around, then Sanchez would make a good MLB backup, with the chance to push for more.

This all assumes that Stewart will miss the start of the season, and there has been no indication of that. That said, eventually there will be an injury that will bring Sanchez up to the majors this year. He’s going to need to make the most of that time when it comes, especially with Diaz on the verge of making the jump to the big leagues.

**We have less than 100 paperback books of the 2015 Prospect Guide remaining from the final shipment. I don’t anticipate ordering another shipment this year. That means once the current batch is gone, the paperback version will be sold out. You can order your copy of the book on the products page of the site.

**Notes: Injury Updates On McCutchen, Tabata, Stewart; Kang To Get Time At Second Base

**Luis Heredia Hasn’t Pitched In Over Two Weeks While The Pirates Get Him In Better Shape. Not the best update from minor league camp. Right now I don’t expect Heredia to be ready for the start of full-season ball.

**JaCoby Jones Did Fine In The Move To Shortstop, But Needs To Cut Down On Strikeouts. I talked with Jones and Larry Broadway about the move to short and his strikeout issues.

**The Mental Adjustment That Led To Cody Dickson’s Dominant 2014 Second Half. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of Cody Dickson in Bradenton this year.

  • No bigger fan than me. I was at the Duquesne Club for a fundraiser and most things were out of my range but I did land the Tony Sánchez autographed baseball for $170.

  • Diaz might be the better option long term. Better defender even with Tony’s improvements I don’t think he could touch Diaz but Sanchez could wind up being a capable starter who is our back up. It would be nice to be paying league minimum for both our catchers. I could see a young dynamic duo behind the dish for years to come.

  • Randy Ritchey
    March 19, 2015 10:07 am

    I don’t think any Major League team would take a catcher who has the talent to be behind the plate, and just move them all over. Tony either becomes a catcher in Pittsburgh or moves somewhere else. Catching is his spot. It is a shame that immaturity on his part put the Pirates in this spot. But too many good catchers is certainly not a problem.

  • lonleylibertarian
    March 19, 2015 7:04 am

    I guess I am crazy – but if Tony continues to hit he is my opening day catcher – he has worked hard – done his job and earned the spot. Cervelli can be HIS backup and Stewart can be released – traded…

    • If, *IF*, Sanchez’s throwing issues are gone, there’s probably less than a 1-win difference between Cervelli and Sanchez over the course of the season.

      Which says as much about Cervelli as it does Sanchez.

    • Stewart has shown to be a good backup catcher. What the Pirates don’t have is anyone who has shown to be a good starting catcher. Hopefully Sanchez has figured it out and can be that guy. I have serious doubts about Cervelli.

  • I would love to see Sanchez put it all together here. If they were to deal someone, I’d hope it would be Stewart.

    • Randy Ritchey
      March 19, 2015 10:15 am

      I am with you 100% Indy. But other things will play a part of this also. Can, or should Tony be a backup or be playing regular and does Stewart better fit that role. It would seem that if you would like to have Tony at his highest value (trade) then he needs to be playing. The ideal situation would be a platoon with a RH and LH hitters available, but that isn’t the case. These things seem to have a way of working out on their own.

      • They might have already started doing so. Stewart’s hamstring problem might not be terribly serious, but it gives Neal the perfect opportunity to deal with the unexpected logjam of catchers by putting Stewart on the disabled list to start the season and keeping Sanchez on the 25-man.

        At this point, we have no idea whether Sanchez, Cervelli or Diaz can be an everyday Major League catcher. But we know for absolute certain that Stewart can’t, so in my mind, he’s more of an insurance policy.

        Put Stewart on the 30-day DL and bring Sanchez north. Give the starting job to Cervelli with Sanchez as his backup, and let Diaz play every day in Indy. If Cervelli does well, maybe you trade or release Stewart. If he struggles, give the job to Sanchez. If HE plays well, again, you can trade or release Stewart. If not, send Sanchez back to Indy and hand him a first baseman’s glove.

        The point is, the Pirates have three viable candidates to be the starting catcher and one reliable backup. Until we sort out which one actually deserves the job, I’m keeping all my options open. But if one of the three steps up and shows he deserves to be the long-term starter, someone has to go, and I see Stewart as being the most expendable.

  • The leading candidate for Dbacks catcher is Tuffy Gosewisch, who is competing with Peter O’Brien, Gerald Laird, Blake Lalli, and Rule 5 Oscar Hernandez. Does anyone think the Dbacks would give up a decent (B) prospect for Tony?

    • david: If the Pirates break camp with Sanchez on the 25 man roster, then what you suggest is a possibility.

    • Or Cervelli?

    • I wouldn’t be so quick to trade away a potentially viable starting catcher when we aren’t sure we have another.

      The good news is that we have three promising players — Cervelli, Sanchez and Diaz — competing for the job, which improves the odds that someone will emerge as an everyday player. The bad news is that we don’t yet know who that person will be.

      I’d hate to trade Sanchez away assuming Cervelli can be a starter only to have him get injured or simply underperform. And the reverse is also true.

      Ideally both of those guys would show promise, in which case you could:
      A.) keep both and try to trade Stewart (although the return would be pretty meager);
      B.) trade away whichever one doesn’t wind up starting and use Stewart as your backup until Diaz earns a promotion; or,
      C.) trade away Diaz (which could conceivably get you a pretty good prospect in return) and hope Cervelli and/or Sanchez can hold the fort until McGuire arrives.

      Any of the above options could make sense, but all of them are contingent on having a high degree of confidence you have at least one legitimate starter and identifying who that guy is.

      I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet and probably won’t until we get a couple of months into the season.

  • Douglas Byrd
    March 19, 2015 1:10 am

    With Lambo doing nothing special, there is a need for a 4th outfielder who will get some ABs. Could Sanchez be that guy? I don’t see carrying 3 catchers and only 3 OFs as viable.

    • Douglas: For that LH hitting bench strength/Utility OF, Jaff Decker has been the best of the group this Spring; Lombardozzi is a switchitter but has shown almost no power at all; and Andrew Lambo at .179 has not been very impressive with the bat compared to Decker. Decker came prepared and is hitting over .300 with a .600+ Slugging, and a 1.000+ OPS. He may be ready to step up, similar to what Travis Snider did last year.

      Sanchez has won the backup Catcher spot if his throwing has improved. Stewart would be a good candidate for the 15 or 30 Day DL to allow time for the hamstring to heal – when you are nearing mid-30’s and have a hamstring issue, it does not heal very quickly, if at all. Stewart had a career year last year at bat, but expecting the same in 2015 would be foolish -we need to take advantage of this opportunity to showcase Sanchez.

      • >>>For that LH hitting bench strength/Utility OF, Jaff Decker has been the best of the group this Spring<<

        Please don't start that again. The Pirates made the mistake last year of using a handful of at-bats in meaningless spring training games to determine whether Lambo was ready for the Major Leagues. And when he got off to a slow start — as lots of players do — they sent him own to the minors, where he once again raked. Meanwhile, the Pirates traded away a valuable prospect for the estimable Ike Davis, whose production was no better — and potentially much worse — than what Lambo could have given them.

        I understand that success at AAA doesn’t necessarily translate to success in the show, but Lambo has produced at a high level over several seasons within the system created specifically to test and train young players. Shouldn’t that count for more than 30 bad at-bats (or 30 good at-bats for Decker) during games in which there are literally players jogging around the outfield while the action is taking place?

        For the love of God, stop the madness and bring Lambo north. Two months from now if he isn’t hitting and Decker is, they can always switch places. But not now, and not based purely on spring training results.

        • This makes sense in that we don’t want to make too much of a deal over 28 ABs. I think at this point I’d put Stewart on the DL and give T Sanchez equal playing time behind the plate the first few weeks to see what happens. If he continues to play well, then you make a move.

        • Preach.

    • What I like about Lambo so far is just 3 strikeouts in 28 at bats. It’s funny that emjayinTN claims that Decker has been the best of the group this spring when he only has 16 at bats and 4 of them were strikeouts. Funnier still is that he mentioned the .179 BA, when McCutchen and Polanco have .167 BA. It’s spring training, BA is meaningless. The only hitting stats that kind of give an indication of how a player is doing is walks and strikeouts (both of which indicate how their approach is and if they are in good position to start the season). Of all the potential bench players, Lambo has looked the best (better than Kang, Rodriguez, Hart, Decker, Florimon, Lombardozi and probably even Sanchez).

      • Disagree with your BB/K point. Talent varies too much to even consider those good markers. And lets not forget Lambo finished last Sping with just a 13% K-rate.

        • Last year’s spring training kind of proves my point about BB/K. Lambo vs Ishikawa. In Spring, Lambo hits .093 (terrible I know) in 42 at bats, but he only has 6 strikeouts. Ishikawa hits .290 (respectable) in 31 at bats but has an alarming 10 strikeouts. So when games start to count in April, Lambo hits .354 in Indy while Ishikawa hits .206 in Pittsburgh. Lambo, 18 K in 79 AB – Ishikawa 11 K in 34 AB.
          .
          You’re right about varying talent (that it is present), not to mention pitchers in Spring Training are more often working on specific things than trying to get strikeouts. Hitters are pretty much doing the same thing, working on specific things they and their team feels they need to do in order to prepare for the season. This is why the varying talent doesn’t really matter, hitters are preparing themselves for the season just like the pitchers, so it doesn’t matter if it is Kershaw on the mound or Joe Schmoe, the hitter is focused on having a good at bat, seeing the pitch, putting a good swing on the pitch if possible. Less strikeouts means the player is having good at bats and seeing the ball well enough to at least not strikeout. If a player can see the ball, he can put the ball in play. After that, the player just needs to have some power in order to get doubles and homeruns.

          • Well, ignoring the extremely obvious point about the difference between AAA and Major League pitching rendering a comparison of Ish and Lambo useless, you most certainly should be factoring quality of contact much more than contact alone.

            You flippantly state that a player *just* has to turn contact into hard contact like it’s easy. It’s not.

            Also, you sure you want to stick to that Kershaw/Joe Schmoe comment? Come on now…

            • Really? Comparing AAA to MLB performance is useless?!?! Not really, there is indeed a drop off and adjustments that need to be made but it is hardly useless. Clearly I was not saying Lambo would have hit .354 in the MLB, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have hit .250 or better?
              .
              I never implied that a player has to turn contact into hard contact, I said the player has to have some power which means the next check box that one should have in figuring out who will succeed in the MLB is if they are making solid hard contact or making weak contact.
              .
              In spring training, yes, I’ll stick to it doesn’t matter who is pitching, batters are preparing for the season and so are pitchers. Even in spring training, the level of competitiveness can’t be replicated like the regular season. I’m not really sure why you think the varying talent matters. The players battling for spots on the MLB club are likely seeing the same level of talent, or are you saying that Lambo is only facing AAA pitchers while someone else like Sanchez or Decker is facing only the MLB pitchers? I would think the distribution is fairly even, if not the Pirates coaching staff is doing a pretty poor job of figuring out who should be on the roster.

              • I think varying talent matters because not only is it logically simple to understand the difference between Clayton Kershaw and AAA org guy who is only in camp until first cuts, it’s also exactly what analysts are referencing outside of small sample size when they say Spring Training Stats don’t matter.

                This isn’t my opinion, and I’m most certainly not the first guy to make the claim.

                • If we were talking regular season and SSS, I’d agree with you. Spring training SSS, I disagree. I don’t think the varying talent has as much of an effect as the fact that players are more concerned about preparing for the season. The varying talent probably has a greater effect on BA and HR, but K rate is largely uneffected.

  • Tim with his bat and improved arm, has there been talks of him getting time at third?

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