Pirates' Sanchez relies on short memory after mediocre season


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gaby Sanchez arrived in Chicago to join his new team at the beginning of August. He had been a Pirate for eight days when the team went 16 games over .500.

Those eight days served as a preview to what could be. Sanchez then had to sit through the feature film: The disastrous second half that sent the team to a 20th consecutive sub-.500 season.

"We smelled it," Sanchez said. "We didn't get it, but we smelled it. It was within reach. We know what it's going to take to get there. We know where we faulted and what we had to do to have it not happen again."

Sanchez enters the 2013 season in a platoon at first base with the left-handed Garrett Jones. Last season, Jones played his best since 2009, his first year with the Pirates. Sanchez struggled enough with the Miami Marlins that they sent him to Class AAA, and though he performed better after coming to Pittsburgh -- he had a .720 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Pirates, .556 with Miami -- he finished the year with a .217 average, a .279 on-base percentage and seven home runs.

"If you had a good season, you remember it," Sanchez said. "If you didn't have a good season, you forget it very quickly. I don't really go back on what happened to me last year."

Sanchez spoke highly of the Pirates organization and said he has enjoyed his time as a part of it. Yet, like many athletes, he wants to seek out discomfort.

"When you're comfortable, that's when you're content," he said. "When you're content you never get better."

Except in the batter's box. Sanchez said he wanted to return to the swing and approach that he was familiar with and revert "back to how I hit."

Sanchez's brief experience with the version of the Pirates that contended for the National League wild-card spot enlightened him to the way the team responded when they slipped from contention.

"The guys never changed," he said. "And that's what you need."

Seven of the starting eight position players return this season, and Russell Martin will replace Rod Barajas behind the plate. The lineup showed it can keep pace with anyone in the league with its performance in June and July, and it displayed more power as well -- the Pirates hit 170 home runs in 2012, 63 more than 2011.

It also, however, showed weakness in the first two months of the season, where two runs per game were sometimes hard to come by.

"I feel like we have the pieces that we need to go out there and win," Sanchez said. "Last year we were right there."

Whether the pitching keeps pace with the offense remains uncertain. Depending on whether the Pirates can solve the riddle of Francisco Liriano, who injured his non-throwing arm in December before his two-year, $12.75 million contract with the Pirates became official, the rotation might feature two inexperienced starters. The bullpen lost a two-time All-Star selection in Joel Hanrahan, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox.

Sanchez's playing time depends on a number of factors. Jones also plays right field, but playing time there may be sparse because the Pirates want Travis Snider to play often. Jose Tabata also will take away playing time.

Jones' ineffectiveness against left-handed pitchers opens the door for Sanchez, but Clint Robinson and Jerry Sands, recently acquired in trades, could compete at first base as well. Because the five-man bench will include backup catcher Michael McKenry and utility man Josh Harrison, though, room for backup corner infielders will be scarce.

Sanchez started the quest to regain the swing that makes him feel comfortable at minicamp this week, joining a large contingent of the 40-man roster along with some non-roster invitees, the coaching staff, minor league coordinators, front office and scouting staff. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 11, 30 days from today.

Sanchez said he believes the team did not transform when the wins became few and far between, leading to his belief that the team can compete again.

"It wasn't like there was any difference going on," he said. "We were having good [at-bats], we were doing what we need to do.

"Things didn't turn out how you want them to be and you look back and, OK, what changed? Well, nothing changed. We're still the same team."

Will that be enough? Those previews begin airing in a month.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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