PITTSBURGH -- The way Tony Sanchez has been treated this week, it would be easy to mistake him for one of the key cogs to the Pirates' 2013 playoff wheel.
As the 25-year-old catcher has been making the rounds on the Pirates Caravan and then at PirateFest, he's been feted as an established star, not as a player who made his big league debut in 2013 and appeared in only 22 games. Sanchez, Pittsburgh's No. 11 prospect, wasn't even on Pittsburgh's postseason roster, though it's difficult to tell based on the treatment he's received.
"It's overwhelming," said Sanchez shortly before beginning his autograph session at PirateFest on Sunday. "The amount of love the fans have shown me, someone who played such a small part in the success of the team, is unbelievable. I love it. I was only there for a couple of months, but I feel like I was there for a few years. I'm happy I finally made it here. It was one of my goals. I wanted to come to PirateFest and the Caravan after being a big leaguer."
Sanchez hit .233/.288/.400 in 60 at-bats with the Pirates, but did get some valuable playing time, pairing with Francisco Liriano as a very successful battery late in the year. Considering how far Sanchez has come -- throwing issues severely hampered his climb up the organizational ladder -- the fact he was allowed behind the plate during a Major League playoff race spoke volumes about where he is now.
"It hasn't been easy," Sanchez said. "I've been at the bottom of the barrel as far as adversity goes. Last year was huge for my confidence and my development. To see that I can contribute to a winning ballclub behind the plate was huge for me. That Liriano trusted me enough to catch him, the other guys as well, was big. It's only going to be more huge for me this year to get more time, keep building on that confidence and seeing how good I can be at this level of baseball."
Sanchez knows he may have to wait, again, to test his skills at the highest level. The Pirates acquired veteran Chris Stewart to be Russell Martin's backup in 2014. General manager Neal Huntington has been up front with Sanchez, telling him a backup would be brought in, but also explaining that it shouldn't be seen as a slight.
"In Tony's situation, I've been a part of two different opportunities for a young catcher to be a backup catcher and we've watched that young catcher regress significantly," Huntington said. "We hope we can keep Russ Martin here for years, but the reality of free agency and how weak the market will be next year, is we're probably going to have to replace Russ Martin, so how do we best replace him with Tony Sanchez? How do we make sure Tony is in the best possible situation to be ready to be our catcher, if there's an injury this year or if Russ leaves via free agency next year? The answer is to go play on a regular and consistent basis.
"This move was as much about 2015 and having Tony in a position to hit the ground running and be our guy. I do feel his pain. He's ready to be a big league catcher right now. We just felt the best way to make sure he was ready to be a guy in 2015 was to play more."
That means Sanchez is ticketed for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2014. Talking with the 2009 first-round Draft selection about it, it quickly becomes clear that Sanchez hasn't just heard Huntington's message, he's embraced it.
"It's the same place I was last year," Sanchez said. "I'm going to go to Indy and hit my way out of there. I knew they were going to sign somebody, because they weren't going to want me to back up Russ. Russ is the kind of guy who isn't going to come out of the lineup unless he breaks a bone. He wants to be in the lineup. When Neal called and told me we don't want you backing up Russ because you're not going to play at all, I completely understand. I'll go back to Indy, hit my way out of there, and get as much time up there as possible."