After tough 2010, Sanchez resumes rise to bigs

After tough 2010, Sanchez resumes rise to bigs

After tough 2010, Sanchez resumes rise to bigs
BRADENTON, Fla. -- There is nothing arbitrary about the way Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and his coaching staff draw up their groupings for these early workout days in Spring Training.

The field assignments are a window to the team's depth chart, as the starters go through defensive work on one field and those fighting for a roster spot or simply gaining experience gather on another. The division is fairly clear.

There is one noticeable deviation in this pattern, though. Through much of the first nine days of camp, Tony Sanchez -- not Jason Jaramillo or Dusty Brown -- has joined established catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit in a number of the team's defensive drills.

Such a setup is not an indictment against Jaramillo or Brown -- both of whom are being considered as backup options for the big league club. Rather, it's entirely by design that the Pirates have Sanchez trailing the two veteran backstops.

"That was the idea going in -- to give him an opportunity to be around two guys that have a little more experience in the game of baseball," Hurdle said. "The constant conversation, I think it's an opportunity for him to really elevate this spring and get ready for the season."

Sanchez isn't expected to get substantial playing time this spring since he is not ready to make a push for the Major League roster. But for the time that he spends in his second big league Spring Training, the intention is to have Sanchez be a sponge.

"The awe factor isn't as big as it was last year," said Sanchez, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. "It makes it a little easier to go out every day and get my work done and not say, 'Oh, I'm catching bullpens next to Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit.'"

The Bucs plan to send Sanchez to Double-A Altoona to begin the season. Sanchez's arrival in Altoona is a bit delayed, though the organization still considers the 22-year-old catcher a candidate to climb through the Minors quickly.

Sanchez was just two days away from being promoted to Double-A when he was hit in the face by a pitch on June 22. He had already missed time from taking a pitch to the head earlier in the month, but this beaning was worse. A specialist identified some small fractures in Sanchez's jaw. Surgery was deemed necessary.

In addition to missing the All-Star Futures Game, Sanchez endured having his jaw wired shut for four weeks. He couldn't talk, and his diet was limited to Smoothie King, ice cream milkshakes, Progresso soups and Chef Boyardee fixed in a blender.

Sanchez was kept sane only by the company of his roommate Brock Holt, who had sustained a season-ending knee injury just a few weeks earlier.

"If I didn't have Brock, I would have gone crazy," Sanchez said. "If he didn't have me, he probably would have gone crazy. We played a lot of video games. I carried a lot of bags for him, and I watched him eat a lot of meals.

"We had our naps scheduled. We had our shows scheduled. We had our video games scheduled. We had a lot of time."

Sanchez missed the rest of the Minor League season, which was a hard reality to face for a prospect who was having a terrific year. At the time Sanchez went down, he was batting .314 with 17 doubles, four homers and 35 RBIs for Bradenton in his first taste of high-A. His game-calling was noticeably improving with experience.

"We were winning, and we had a great squad," Sanchez said. "Individually, I was really happy. That's a tough league to hit in, and I was pleased with how I was swinging the bat and how I was behind the plate. I was looking forward to moving up."

Sanchez did return, but the results weren't there. After spending time in instructional league, Sanchez played 18 games in the Arizona Fall League. He hit just .206 and became even more anxious at the plate when the hits didn't fall early.

Sanchez's approach and process looked fine, noted director of player development Kyle Stark. But Sanchez struggled to see that since the average never crept up.

"Arizona was kind of humbling to go out there and realize I am not going to hit .300 everywhere I go," Sanchez said. "Everywhere I had been before I had had success and thrived. In Arizona, I was literally trying to survive.

"You always want to go out and you always want to hit .300 and be recognized as one of the better hitters in the league. I had to take a step back and realize that I had been hit in the face and just missed three months. If you sit out a week, you're going to be rusty. I had to let the failure happen and just try to have fun."

He's having fun again now, which is evident to anyone who has observed Sanchez during the first week of Spring Training workouts. The Pirates are especially encouraged that they haven't seen the catcher fear stepping into the batter's box, even after the memory of taking multiple pitches to the head last year.

The next significant step, as everyone will attest, is polishing Sanchez's game-calling ability. It will be a test, too, to see how he responds to playing a full Minor League season for the first time in his career. Sanchez appeared in 48 games in 2009 and just 59 last year.

It might be a bit premature to predict Sanchez's arrival in Pittsburgh by the end of 2011 -- a time frame some threw out there when he was drafted. Expectation that Sanchez will be an impact Major Leaguer soon, though, hasn't wavered a bit.

"You like what you see, there's no doubt," Hurdle said. "He's been good in all the drill work so far. He's definitely a very good-looking young prospect."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.