It was early autumn, and the Pirates' baseball operations staff was conducting its annual organizational meeting, the one in which depth charts are developed for the following year.
The subject was third base.
Was there anyone good enough in house?
Should they trade?
Try free agency?
One member of management spoke up in favor of the player who batted .291, second best on the team, and flashed a fine glove in his first full season of Major League Baseball.
"My vote was for Freddy Sanchez," that official, now employed elsewhere, recalled recently. "He hits for contact, catches everything. Great attitude, too. I told them: You could win with Freddy Sanchez as your everyday third baseman."
The majority must have felt otherwise. After a furious but failed bid to land free agent Bill Mueller in December, the Pirates signed Joe Randa to a one-year contract worth $4 million and, in the aftermath, deemed Sanchez a bench player.
Several months later, little about that viewpoint seems to have changed, even as Sanchez sparkles with Randa disabled by a fractured foot.
Why not complain?
Sanchez, making $15,000 more than the major-league minimum at $342,000, is batting .341. That is tops on the Pirates and would rank second among the National League leaders today if he had 14 more at-bats, enough to qualify for the batting title.
He has 11 doubles, three more than any teammate.
And 23 RBIs, third on the team.
And four home runs.
There is this, too: In the 19 games since manager Jim Tracy put Sanchez third in the order, a move some might have found curious, he has hit .367 and driven in 18 runs.
And yet, if that productivity has caused the slightest shift in the Pirates' perception of his ability to start, it is difficult to detect.
General manager Dave Littlefield has repeated in recent days that Randa will regain the starting role when healthy, possibly within two weeks. If that comes to pass, Sanchez surely will be bumped back to the bench because the only other positions he plays, shortstop and second base, are locked down by Jack Wilson and Jose Castillo.
Asked again during the just-completed series in Phoenix how Sanchez might see action when Randa returns, Littlefield maintained status quo.
"There are a variety of things that happen, whether it's injuries or moving players around, giving guys a break, that type of stuff," he said. "I look at Craig Wilson and Freddy as two guys who are going to find their way into the lineup. In Freddy's case, he can play third, short, second, and he's certainly swung the bat very well."
That evaluation, one that underscores Sanchez's strengths as those of a utility player, is common among management.
Tracy, asked in Phoenix what he likes about Sanchez: "There isn't anything I've given him to do that he hasn't done well, whether it's come off the bench, start or play a different position. He knows how to play the game, plays hard, plays with his heart and plays with his mind. What is there not to like?"
Third base coach and infield instructor Jeff Cox: "Freddy can play all the infield positions. As Jim Tracy says about him, he's a thinking man's player, an outstanding versatility player."
Sanchez, it is safe to say, sees himself as more. But he has yet to utter the first word of complaint on the matter.
In January, shortly after Randa's signing, the most incendiary material Sanchez could offer in response was this: "This team needed to get better in a lot of ways, and I understand that. We all need to do our part."
Even after performing so well in these opening two months of the season, Sanchez is staying that course, as was evident by his answers to a series of questions earlier in the week:
Why not complain?
"It's just the way the game is, and I don't ever disrespect the game. I always play hard, never pout. That's how I was taught. For me, it's an honor to be on a major-league team."
So, do you want to start?
"Oh, don't get me wrong: I want to start. But getting upset is only going to mess me up and mess up the team. So, the way I overcome it, I just come out here, do the best I can do, and everything else will play itself out."
Might you ever complain?
"There's going to come a time, maybe, when I'll say something. But for now, I just look at it as having confidence within myself that I can play this game, that I can start."
Are you at that point?
"Yes, I am. I'm showing what I can do, and the real issue is that the team believes in me."
"Look, here's how it is: When Joe gets back, he's the starting third baseman, and I'm a utility guy. Hopefully, next year, that will change, and they'll believe I can play."
Why not give it all?
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Sanchez's attitude is to know of his history of perseverance
He was born with a right foot smaller than his left and turned inward, a condition called club foot. The other foot was pigeon-toed. Doctors performed surgery on the right foot and warned Sanchez's mother he might not be able to walk.
He beat that with the aid of a boot cast and a walker, eventually maturing not only into a healthy child but also the fastest player on his youth baseball teams in Burbank, Calif.
Nothing special, he says.
"I really don't look at anything in my life as overcoming adversity. To me, it's just a matter of working for what you get. Same thing with baseball. I never really was that big prospect in high school or college. But I always knew I was capable of playing this game."
He was drafted out of high school by the Atlanta Braves but elected to attend Oklahoma City University rather than sign. After his senior year there, the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the 11th round.
Ernie Jacobs, a Boston scout, showed up at the Sanchez home with what, by baseball standards, was a meager offer of a $1,000 signing bonus.
"I was, like, 'Sweet!' " Sanchez said. "I didn't care. I told Ernie, 'Just give me a chance.' "
He blossomed into one of Boston's most promising prospects, posting a .323 average in four years in the minors, then was acquired by the Pirates in a trade July 31, 2003. Littlefield referred to Sanchez that day as "the key guy in the deal."
Shortly before he was dealt, Sanchez's right ankle was afflicted with severe tendonitis, an ailment that led to surgery and would cost him nearly two full seasons in what should have been the prime of his career. He did not return to action until spring of last year.
"I had to keep believing in myself," he said.
Maybe because of his arduous path to the majors, Sanchez plays the game with a passion visible from the uppermost seats at PNC Park, diving, leaping, face-first, elbow-first, all out in all ways.
Sometimes, as he concedes, he carries it to a fault. Witness those straight-line sprints from the batter's box through the infield grass on his way to first base.
"Yeah, I know, that's probably the wrong thing to do. I guess it's just a sign of how badly I want to get down there. To me, effort means everything. When I hear the fans cheer for me, I hope it's not so much because of the numbers or how I'm hitting now, but because of the way I battle."
Why not a starter?
Sanchez has fans in the Pirates' clubhouse, too.
"He's Freddy 'The Rake' Sanchez now," left fielder Jason Bay said, grinning. "He's been tremendous for us."
Another supporter is Jack Wilson, a longtime friend and longtime advocate that Sanchez should be a starter.
"Absolutely," Wilson said. "I've felt that way all along, and he's done nothing to change my mind, obviously. Look at what he's done. It's a shame that someone's got to go down for him to get on the field."
Someone else who thinks that way is Randa.
When it was mentioned to Randa this week that the Pirates say he will reclaim third base once healthy, he quickly retorted: "Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that. I don't know how this is going to play out, but Pittsburgh has to be just ecstatic with what Freddy's doing."
Randa, hitting .221 before his injury, pointed to the team's 14-33 record as a possible sign that management could wind up discarding veterans or reducing their roles.
"They're in a position where they're eventually going to look toward next year," he said. "My role when I come back? That's Jim Tracy's decision. Obviously, I want to play. But Freddy deserves to be in there. He's earned that right. And I'm not going to sit here and be Mr. Bad Guy about it."
Randa cited his experience as a rookie in Kansas City a decade ago, when he gradually supplanted veteran Gary Gaetti as the Royals' third baseman.
"Gary easily could have shut the door on me, as if to say, 'Hey, you're trying to take my job.' But he helped me, made me better. Freddy's one very talented guy but also a true professional. Even with the numbers he's putting up, he wants to learn to get better. And I'm very happy to be there for him."
Sanchez speaks no less fondly of Randa, and the mutual admiration seems to stem from their similarly uncommon offensive profiles for third base, a power position: Randa never has topped 17 home runs in a season, and Sanchez has nine in 185 games with the Pirates.
To be sure, Sanchez's modest power has been dominant in management's reluctance to anoint him the starter, although Littlefield has acknowledged Sanchez has the potential to get stronger.
"One thing we forget is that this is a player who came into this season with less that two years of major-league service," Littlefield said. "We've seen improvement in many areas."
In general, third base is thin throughout the majors and, as Sanchez is fond of pointing out, some teams -- albeit only a few -- are satisfied with gap-to-gap, high-average hitters there.
"I just don't think there should be a stereotype," he said. "Look at Bill Mueller, a guy who won a batting title and helped Boston win it all a couple years ago. Or how about Joe? He doesn't hit a lot of home runs. I feel like, if I do my thing, maybe the Pirates can make up some power at another position. I feel I bring a lot to the table. And, hey, I'm going to hit my share of home runs, too."
It never takes long for Sanchez's confidence to shine through on any matter.
Try asking, for example, if this current stretch represents the best baseball of his career.
"This isn't my best or worst or anything," he will reply flatly. "It's just me. I'm playing the way I've always known I could play when healthy. This is what you get from me, and I wouldn't expect anything less."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Despite his hustle, hot bat, solid defensive work and reluctance to knock those in the organization who don't believe in him, Freddy Sanchez, above, probably won't be the Pirates third baseman when Joe Randa is healthy
Click photo for larger image.
Game: Astros (Buchholz 3-3) vs. Pirates (Snell 3-3), 7:05 p.m.
Where: PNC Park.
TV/radio: FSN Pittsburgh/KDKA-AM (1020) and Pirates Radio Network.
INDIANAPOLIS (26-20) won at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, 12-3. RHP Brandon Duckworth (7-2, 2.52) took the International League lead for victories after allowing three runs and five hits in seven innings. He struck out five, walked none and threw 61 of 88 pitches for strikes. CF Rajai Davis (.248) went 3 for 6 with a double and three runs. SS J.J. Furmaniak (.219) went 2 for 4 with his second home run and a double.
ALTOONA (30-17) beat Bowie, 3-1. RHP Landon Jacobsen (5-4, 3.55) allowed one run in six innings. 2B Craig Stansberry (.238) went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk.
LYNCHBURG (20-25) beat Frederick, 4-3. 1B Steve Pearce (.500), making his debut after being promoted from Class A Hickory, hit a one-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to end the game. Pearce, who had 12 home runs in 41 games for the Crawdads, finished 1 for 2 with a walk and four RBIs. C Neil Walker (.267) went 2 for 4 with two doubles, including one in the ninth. RHP Dustin Craig (1-0, 2.27) allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings.
HICKORY (18-26) won at Augusta, 3-2. RHP Luis Valdez (3-1, 3.36) allowed two runs in six innings. CF Andrew McCutchen (.292) went 2 for 4 with a double, two runs and his seventh stolen base.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1938.