Catcher Sanchez trying to reach majors with Pirates despite odds against him


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tony Sanchez prefers to be a realist.

The 24-year-old catcher wasn't blind to the fact that the Pirates signed free agent Russell Martin to a two-year contract. He's aware of Michael McKenry's standing on the roster. Rather than delude himself, Sanchez said, he plans to focus on the part of the equation that he can influence.

"I'm not naïve," Sanchez said. "I know the chances of breaking camp with the team are slim to none.

"With McKenry and Martin, they're one and two. I'm going to have to earn it."

Sanchez, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 draft, was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and hopes he can be an opportunist. He knows his playing time in spring training will increase when Martin joins Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic and Ali Solis, a non-roster catcher invited to camp, plays for Mexico. All he can do, he said, is play well enough to impress the coaching staff.

"[Clint] Hurdle hasn't seen me play much, but I know Banny [Jeff Banister] has, and some of the other guys," Sanchez said. "I'd also love to start building a relationship with the big league guys. Even when I'm catching bullpens, I'm trying to learn them, learn their strengths and weaknesses and start building on that rapport with those guys like I had in Triple-A."

Sanchez cracked the roster in Class AAA Indianapolis in June 2012, promoted after posting a .277 average and .370 on-base percentage with Class AA Altoona. He started slowly, hitting .180 with a .448 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in June.

"It takes me a month or two to adjust to each level," Sanchez said. "I first got to Indy and I struggled a little bit."

He improved in July, hitting .240 with a .326 on-base percentage and six home runs, and August, when he hit .271. Sanchez learned more about the finer points of catching in Class AAA, which is full of players with major league experience. Catching Pirates pitchers who had spent time in the majors also gave him a new perspective.

"From the time that he got there, he turned into an amazing defensive catcher, intellectual catcher," said Chris Leroux, who pitched to Sanchez in Indianapolis. "Whenever he got there, he wasn't as good as when he left; that's for sure."

Sanchez's education came mostly from observation and conversation.

"We have trust in him when he's decisive about his decisions," Justin Wilson said. "If we shake him and he puts down what he wants again, it shows that he's got confidence in our stuff and allows us to put a lot of confidence in him."

Two days before the Class AAA playoffs started, Sanchez fouled a ball off his big left toe, breaking it. He attempted to stay in the game, but that went poorly because he was catching Gerrit Cole, who throws 100 mph, and Sanchez needed full functionality in his toes to block the pitches.

He sat out the final two games of the regular season before returning for the first playoff game. He favored his left side, attempting to keep the weight off his toe, and ended up straining his left quadriceps tendon.

"By the sixth inning, I couldn't get down into my crouch anymore without a sharp pain shooting through my knee," he said. "This is dumb, I'm hurting myself and my team."

Sanchez has dealt with worse. He took a pitch to the face that broke his jaw in June 2010 and ended his season. The following season, he had a .658 OPS in Altoona but threw out only 22 percent of baserunners.

"He's had setbacks," Wilson said. "He's handled them really well. He keeps a pretty clear head about him and just loves the game of baseball."

"I don't think I've ever seen him mad," Leroux said. "I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing. I've literally never seen him mad. He's always in a positive attitude."

Sanchez spent the offseason working out in Miami at a facility geared toward baseball fitness along with major leaguers Michael Morse, Nelson Cruz and Martin Prado.

"What I told myself ... at the end of last year was, obviously, whatever I'm doing isn't enough because I have struggled the last two years," Sanchez said.

The knee and toe are healthy. That helps, but it won't clear his path to the majors. He is not worried about that.

"You play as well as you can now and you go into Indianapolis and get off to a hot start," he said. "Keep that through the first month, month and a half, and let everything else take care of itself."

Looking ahead

• Saturday: Pirates open the spring training schedule vs. Tampa Bay at 1:05 p.m. in Port Charlotte, Fla. Radio: KDKA-FM (93.7).

• Sunday: Pirates open the home portion of their schedule vs. Atlanta at 1:05 p.m. at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. Radio: KDKA-FM (93.7).

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 17, 2013 5:00 AM


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