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Pirates notebook: Future of lefty Sanchez still undecided

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 11:06 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez went 1-9 last season but earned a spot in the rotation after a spring in which he threw two scoreless outings.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez works behind the plate during agame against the Red Sox on Feb. 28, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez delivers against the Red Sox on Feb. 28, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez stands in the bullpen between workouts with pitchers Feb. 20, 2013, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez delivers against the Red Sox on Feb. 28, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones bats against the Astros on March 3, 2013 in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez warms up in the bullpen Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with pitcher Jonathan Sanchez on the mound during a game against the Red Sox on Feb. 28, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Although he pitched well Friday against the Houston Astros, left-hander Jonathan Sanchez mostly has struggled this spring. Sanchez can opt out of his contract if he's not assured a spot on the Pirates' active roster by March 24.

“I see a lot of good arms here, but I'm here to win a spot,” Sanchez said. “Whatever they want me to do, that's their decision. I want to be in the rotation. I might have to make a decision that day. But right now, I don't know what to say.”

Sanchez is in camp on a minor league contract. If he plays in the majors, he'll make $1.375 million in base salary. He also could get up to $750,000 in performance bonuses based on appearances and innings.

General manager Neal Huntington insists the opt-out clause won't figure into his decision about Sanchez's role.

“It just means we've got to make a decision by March (24th), and that's really all it means,” Huntington said. “That's part of what he's earned as a veteran player ... and we're fine with that. We're hoping to have the roster set by then, or not long after that anyway, so it's kind of a moot point.”

For what it's worth, the Pirates used a designated hitter Friday when Sanchez worked against the Astros. Manager Clint Hurdle has indicated he will not use a DH on days when his regular starters are pitching in order to get them in-game batting experience.

Over his first four outings, Sanchez gave up eight hits and seven runs in 5 13 innings (11.81 ERA). He recently junked some mechanical changes he made early in camp and went back to his old delivery, which he hopes will spark a turnaround. He threw first-pitch strikes to nine of 10 batters Friday and had no three-ball counts.

“His (previous) outing was better, but this one was ramped up,” Hurdle said. “Another big step forward for him. We're still looking at how he can fit and best serve the ballclub.”

Two players cut

Tony Sanchez figured all along he would not break camp with the Pirates, so he was not surprised Friday when he was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. Left-hander Andy Oliver also was sent down to Indy, leaving 49 players in camp.

Sanchez's departure assures that, as expected, Russell Martin and Michael McKenry will be the catchers on the Opening Day roster.

“I'm getting sent down, but I knew it was going to happen,” Sanchez said. “This is further into camp than I thought it was going to happen, so I'm proud of that. I had more opportunities to play (this year) than in my other camps. That's huge for my confidence going into this season. I wanted this camp to give me the best shot at getting off to a great start at Indy, and that's what it did.”

Sanchez, 24, batted .167 with one homer and three RBI in nine Grapefruit League games. He also got to catch A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Jason Grilli for the first time in game situations.

“Last year was a lot of sit back and watching, catching guys in bullpens,” Sanchez said. “It's not the same intensity as when you catch them in games. They threw me in the fire this year and saw me come out on top.”

A first-round pick in 2009, Sanchez split last season between Double-A Altoona (40 games) and Indy (62 games). He almost certainly will be a September call-up but could get the nod sooner if he becomes more consistent offensively.

“Some days are better than others, especially at the plate,” Sanchez said. “Behind the plate, I'm always the same guy. Once I get that, the sky's the limit.”

Oliver, 25, pitched in three games (3 13 innings) and allowed seven hits and five runs (13.50 ERA). He walked six and struck out three.

“The things we felt the day we acquired Andy we still feel; we love the arm,” Huntington said. “We feel like we've got some work to do, so we want to get him in that Triple-A rotation. Out of that, he can come up and help us as a starter or out of the bullpen.”

The Pirates acquired Oliver in early December when catcher Ramon Cabrera was traded to the Detroit Tigers.

The battle continues

Neither Hurdle nor Huntington will say if righty Kyle McPherson or lefty Jeff Locke has gained an edge in the battle for the No. 5 starter job.

“We've seen some good things from each of them,” Huntington said without elaborating.

Each pitcher could make three more starts this spring.

“We'll continue to build up each guy and see how it plays out,” Huntington said. “I don't know that we have to make (a decision) sooner than later. We've got time in spring training. As long as they continue to get their innings built up ... we're good to go.”

Watson on track

Lefty reliever Tony Watson has not pitched in a game since Feb. 28 because of unspecified mechanical and physical issues. However, Huntington said Watson's spot on the Opening Day roster is not yet in jeopardy. “He's on track,” Huntington said. “But he can't really afford many hiccups.”

Watson is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the New York Yankees.

Around the horn

A.J. Burnett will take his regular turn Saturday, but it will happen in a minor league game at Pirate City. The right-hander is scheduled to throw 80-85 pitches. Gerrit Cole will start Saturday against the Minnesota Twins. “Do I need A.J. to pitch in one of these games to prove anything to me? Absolutely not,” Hurdle said. ... MLB Network will air the Pirates-Braves game on tape delay at 11 p.m. Wednesday.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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