Pirates catcher Sanchez reassigned to minor leagues

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Catcher Tony Sanchez fully expected a closed-door meeting with manager and general manager at some point this spring -- the one telling him he wasn't going to make the team's opening-day roster.

If anything, he was surprised it took this long for it to happen.

The Pirates optioned Sanchez, their first-round pick in 2009, and left-handed pitcher Andy Oliver to Class AAA Indianapolis Friday, shrinking the size of their major league camp to 49 players a little more than two weeks before opening day.

"I knew it was going to happen," Sanchez said. "This is further into camp than I thought it was going to happen."

Sanchez, 24, hit .167 in nine spring training games with three RBIs, one home run and one triple. He walked five times in 23 plate appearances and posted a .792 OPS.

Pirates spring training report

  • Game:

    Pirates 3, Astros 2.

  • Starter:

    Jonathan Sanchez -- 3 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 walks, 3 strikeouts.

  • Top batter:

    Pedro Alvarez -- 1 for 2, double, run, walk.

  • Of note:

    Pirates pitchers combined for a shutout until the ninth, when Jose Martinez drove in two runs with a single off Brooks Brown.

  • News of the day:

    Having struggled with command his past two seasons, Sanchez looked sharp in his fifth outing and second start of the spring. It was his second consecutive solid outing. He did not walk a batter Friday at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., after walking just one in his most recent start. "Felt like old times," Sanchez said. Manager Clint Hurdle said Sanchez is in contention for one of the team's final spots in the starting rotation. "He had some challenges finishing innings initially. Last outing in Fort Myers was much better. This one was ramped up." Sanchez has an opt-out clause in his one-year minor league contract that takes effect March 24, and he said he is not sure if he would stay with the Pirates if they don't make him a starter. "I want to be in the rotation," he said. "I've been in the rotation my last five years. You don't feel good being taken out of the rotation."

  • Injury update:

    Garrett Jones (oblique) went 2 for 3 with an RBI in his first game since being injured March 6. He also played six innings at first base. "I felt a little jumpy in my first at-bat," Jones said. "But it's OK. I feel fine." ... Relief pitcher Tony Watson, who has not pitched since Feb. 28 while working on mechanical issues, is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the New York Yankees. General manager Neal Huntington said Watson can still get in enough spring-training experience to make the opening-day roster. But he "can't really afford many hiccups," he said. Watson allowed seven hits and four runs in 12/3 innings in his previous outing.

Ideally, the Pirates would have liked to keep Sanchez and Oliver in major league camp even longer, general manager Neal Huntington said. But since both are on the 40-man roster and since it was apparent neither would make the opening-day roster, the Pirates limited their risk by optioning them to the minor leagues.

Had either stayed on the roster past Friday and had an injury that would cause them to go on the disabled list on opening day, it would have affected their major league service time, which impacts arbitration eligibility and years of control.

Nick Johnson gained a year of service time -- and the New York Yankees lost a year of control of a then-top prospect -- when a wrist injury placed him on the major league disabled list before the 2000 season, before he ever made his major league debut.

"It's probably the one drawback of them being on the rosters," Huntington said.

"It kind of forces our hand a little bit. We'd love to keep those two guys in camp a little longer."

Sanchez was the fourth overall pick in 2009, and, after two strong seasons to start his minor league career, his jaw was broken when he was hit by a pitch in 2010 and he missed half the season. Ever since, he has struggled to find consistency at the plate.

"Some days are better than others, especially at the plate," he said. "Behind the plate, it's always the same guy. You're always going to get the guy that works hard for you.

"But at the plate, it's that consistency. It's one of the things that once I get that, the sky's the limit. And I'll be there."

But Sanchez and team management were encouraged by his play this spring, even though his offensive numbers weren't strong.

"He's on the right track," Huntington said.

This spring training provided Sanchez game experience with some of the Pirates' top-line pitchers, including A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Jason Grilli.

"They threw me in the fire basically and saw me come out on top," Sanchez said.

"That was huge for me, my confidence, my self-esteem, what I can take with me as far as mental strengths, mental notes."

He described his experience as being drastically different from his spring training in 2012, when he saw limited action with major league pitchers.

The Pirates acquired Oliver, 25, in an offseason trade with the Detroit Tigers. He pitched 21/3 innings this spring, accumulating a 15.23 ERA over two appearances.

Oliver likely will begin in Indianapolis' starting rotation, which could allow him to help the Pirates as a starter or a long reliever should the need arise, Huntington said.

"The things we felt the day we acquired Andy, we still feel," Huntington said.

"We love the arm. We feel like we've got some work to do and things we can do to help him."

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published March 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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