When the Pittsburgh Pirates lost catcher Chris Snyder to a back injury on May 27th, the team's backstopping situation officially became dire. Ryan Doumit was already on the shelf, as was the squad's most experienced AAA catcher in Jason Jaramillo. Eyes turned quickly to evaluate the franchise's minor league options behind the plate.
And when you evaluate the Pirates' minor league catching talent, the premier name is Tony Sanchez.
Sanchez was the Pirates 1st-Round draft pick in 2009 out of Boston College, and entered this season as Pittsburgh's 2nd best prospect according to Baseball America. At age 23, Tony is currently playing ball in Altoona, PA for the Bucs' AA minor league affiliate. The problem is, Sanchez isn't close to big league ready, and he readily admits it.
"I'm struggling enough as it is to hit AA pitching," Sanchez said with a laugh when asked how he'd handle Major League pitching right about now. "I definitely dreamed it, I definitely had a dream I got called up to the Big Leagues. But in reality when you think about it I've only played 45, 50 games in AA and only about the same amount of games in high A, [so] I was fairly certain they weren't going to call my number."
In fact, Tony has played 57 games for the Altoona Curve this year. And the further fact that he's hitting just .251 isn't lost on Sanchez either.
"It's been well below average of my expectations. Every level I've been at since I was seven years old, I've hit anywhere from .350 to .400. I've always dominated. Guys would stop what they're doing in the dugout to watch me hit. When I went to Arizona [Fall League] and hit .203 I lost that feeling, and now here I'm in AA and even though .250 is not a terrible number, it's still nowhere near what I believe I can be hitting. I've got myself out a lot of times, whether it be bad pitch selection or bad swing mechanics."
Sanchez is trying to stay positive through it all, but it clearly is his first professional bump in the road.
"I'm hitting .250 and I've got eight extra base hits and it's almost July, and when you think about it that's a joke, and it's embarrassing. But it's baseball and it's not easy. I'm just not getting barrel to the ball as much as I was last year and i'm not driving the ball, and I don't know what the cause for that is. Although, my plate discipline has been a little better than what it was last year and I'm walking a little more. We've been working so hard in the cages and in pre-game [batting practice]. I've watched hours of video just trying to see what's going on, and we've made a couple of little adjustments. You can't let it get to you. I mean I pride myself on being such a mental warrior, and when you're not hitting you've got to use that tool and just be mentally strong."
It was that mental strength, as well as very good on-field production which turned the Pirates attention to Tony in the '09 Draft where they selected 4th overall. Sanchez hit .327 in the ACC in three years of college ball with 24 homeruns, 49 doubles, and 124 RBI in 161 games. In 2009, his first year with the Pirates organization, Sanchez hit .316 with 7 HR in 40 games for the low-A West Virginia Power, slugging at a .561 clip. Last year in high-A Bradenton, Tony hit .314 with 35 RBI in 59 games.
And then the hard times began, starting with a .203 average in the Arizona Fall League where Sanchez scuffled with 21 strikeouts in 68 at-bats, as well as just 4 homers and 1 double. Times have stayed hard with the challenging spring in Altoona, and they've included a three game suspension by the team for Tony's criticizing of umpires on Twitter after a game, a mistake which Sanchez doesn't hide from.
"In Altoona, [there's] not a lot of places you can get in trouble, as long as you keep your mouth shut on Twitter you'll be alright," he says only half chuckling over the incident. "I don't mind [talking about it], I learn from my mistakes. Sometimes I really don't have a filter. I'll tell you what's on my mind, and when you've got 4,000 people following you and most of those people [are] newspaper outlets, you're going to get in trouble. Twitter was cool, but until I can learn how I can control what comes out of my mouth, I won't be back on. As soon as Twitter affected what I was doing on the field, I knew it was time to get rid of it. I got benched for three games, and for me to sit in the dugout and catch bullpens for three games, it killed me. It was agony, it was a severe punishment."
And to top off the nightmare year of sagging offensive production and a social media gaffe, Sanchez has made 10 errors behind the plate.
"That's something that's haunted me because I take so much pride in my defense. I love throwing the ball, I love trying to pick guys off and throw runners out, and a lot of those errors are from trying to do that. [I've] thrown balls off the legs of base stealers, a couple short hops here and there, but that's the game and that's the way my season has been going until now."
Tony swears the collection of tough times has not destroyed his mental fortitude.
"I'm having fun behind the plate, I'm smiling back there. I'm working harder back there for my pitcher than I am for myself at the plate. There's so many ways for me to have a good game; I mean I can call a good game, I can control the running game well, have a couple plays at the plate, block the ball and keep runners out of scoring position, or I can hit the ball and drive in three runs. But it's been my defense that has kept me happy."
And as promising as Tony's defense skill-set has been, his game calling is also a work in progress for a guy who never called pitches in high school or in college.
"I'll be the first to tell you I make mistakes almost every other inning. But [Altoona pitching coach] Wally Whitehurst is there to let me hear it, to correct me or to tell me when I had a good plan."
Tony Sanchez is by no means Major League ready as summer begins here in 2011, even in a year of desperate catching-depth times. But rest assured, one of the franchise's top prospects is hard at work with his measures to be ready the next time that void needs filled.
As a postscript, here are Tony Sanchez's thoughts on two fellow highly touted Pirates prospects that are in Altoona as well: pitchers Tim Alderson and Bryan Morris
-On Alderson: "He started off extremely strong [this year], he just a hit a little speed bump. He took a hard line drive off the wrist, and when he came back from that he kinda lost the zone a little bit. His next two outings, he was kind of feeling for it, I don't know what was going through his head. He struggled a little bit. But last night he threw an inning, and was throwing his fastball and curveball for strikes, and he looked great, so hopefully he's on his way back up to where he was in the beginning."
On Morris: "He has electric stuff, a great arsenal. When he's on he can be extremely dominant. He's just been a little inconsistent in the starting rotation with fastball command, and when you don't have fastball command it's tough for me to call offspeed pitches late in the count. Since they've moved him into the bullpen, he's been lights out. I don't know if he wants to be there or not, but personally I think that's a really good move for Bryan because he can really dial it in for one, two innings and give you a quick six outs."