Middle infielders ready for camp

Middle infielders ready for camp

PITTSBURGH -- After a trying season and an offseason laced with uncertainty, the Pirates' middle infield duo will be back together after all.

When Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson cleaned out their adjacent stalls at PNC Park at the end of last season, both assumed -- and justifiably so -- that it would be the last time they would share the same clubhouse and the same field.

But as things turned out, they are primed to be neighbors in the clubhouse once again. The trade that was expected to send Wilson out of Pittsburgh this winter never happened. And as a result, he and Sanchez are prepping for their third season together in the Pirates' middle infield.

For Sanchez, the weeks leading up to Spring Training already have been more productive than they were a year ago. After battling right shoulder issues throughout the 2008 season, Sanchez has used most of the winter to rest that shoulder.

It wasn't until the calendar flipped to 2009 that Sanchez picked up a baseball. That was by design, with the hope being that three months of rest would be the remedy for his lingering shoulder soreness.

And as Sanchez recently reported, all is progressing well.

"I have had no setbacks in my throwing program, and I feel as strong as I've ever felt," he said. "We are hitting it hard in rehab. Now I'm trying to stretch it out throwing-wise."

That's not to say that Sanchez necessarily will be at 100 percent on Feb. 17, the date of the Bucs' first full-squad workout at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. He'll have to keep building up his arm strength and progressively extending his range.

But Sanchez certainly is closer to full strength than he was a year ago. The former National League batting champion missed nearly all of Spring Training in '08 after enduring a slow recovery from what had been expected to be minor shoulder surgery the previous September.

Discomfort lingered all spring -- and all season, for the matter -- and it kept Sanchez from getting the spring preparation needed before the start of the season. He later attributed his slow offensive start (hitting .213 in April and .226 in the entire first half of the season) partly to that lack of preparation.

A year before that, in 2007, Sanchez missed most of the Grapefruit League schedule after suffering a twisted right knee early in March.

This year, though, the plan is to play an entire Spring Training schedule. And Sanchez doesn't intend to underestimate how important that will be heading into the regular season.

"It's huge just to know that this is how it's supposed to be," Sanchez said. "To be able to go in there and know that I am able to work on what I need to work on and to have time to prepare and to be able to play in all the games, rather than always being in the training room, is huge.

Hot Stove

"Mentally it's a drag and it takes a toll on you when you can't be out there with a team and working on what you need to be working on," he continued. "This season, to know that I am going to be coming in ready to go, is going to be important."

As for Wilson, he, too, is hopeful of starting and finishing 2009 healthy. In many respects, '08 was the most trying of the shortstop's eight seasons with the Pirates. He appeared in a career-low 87 games after injuries to his left calf and right index finger limited his playing time. His .272 batting average in 2008 was his second-lowest such mark in the last five seasons.

Healthy campaigns for both Sanchez and Wilson should bring the two back to where they were in 2007, when they led the Major Leagues in double plays turned. The two also will be integral in stabilizing a pitching staff that is built to rely heavily on the defense behind it.

And, as Sanchez learned last year, being ready to be that stabilizing factor all begins with being able to complete the necessary spring preparation. And that's something he's ready to start.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.