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Catcher Sanchez all but assured spot with Pirates

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 3:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez works a bullpen session with pitchers Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez works behind the plate against the Phillies Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez works behind the plate against the Phillies Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.

TAMPA — Pirates catcher Russell Martin does not have any doubt Tony Sanchez can be an everyday player in the majors.

“He did a great job when he was called up last year,” Martin said. “In my mind, he's a big league catcher. The only thing that's keeping him out of the big leagues right now is ... me.”

Martin isn't going anywhere, but Sanchez still will be on the Opening Day roster. Chris Stewart, who was acquired last winter to be Martin's backup, had knee surgery Wednesday and will begin the season on the disabled list.

Stewart, who returned to spring training camp Friday, is expected to be out two to six weeks. General manager Neal Huntington said the Pirates are not interested in trading for another backup catcher — essentially guaranteeing Sanchez will break camp with the team.

“It was never really a choice, unless Chris was going to be out for the majority of the season,” Huntington said. “If it's going to be a short-term loss, Tony's going to be the guy, absolutely. We're completely comfortable with our depth right now.”

At the start of camp, management told Sanchez he would open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Sanchez is a sold hitter, but he needs more time to polish his defensive skills. In the minors, he's endured bouts of the yips — erratic, wild throws to the bases.

“He'll have plenty of time to stay sharp (at Indy) when Chris is healthy,” Huntington said. “It's a great opportunity for him to continue to learn and grow at the major league level. A month of being a backup (in the majors) is a lot different that six months of being a backup.”

Stewart maneuvered around McKechnie Field Friday afternoon on crutches. His right knee was red and swollen, and there was a bandage on the spot where the arthroscope went in to shave his injured meniscus.

“I feel great,” Stewart said. “It's a matter of getting the swelling down and getting my range of motion back. Once I'm back on my feet, it's up to me to see how fast I can get back (in action).”

Stewart suffered the injury March 12 during a game against the Minnesota Twins. He felt “a couple of pops” while squatting, but didn't feel any pain. When the joint got tight an inning or two later, he took himself out of the game.

“As a catcher, you're used to getting banged and bruised,” Stewart said. “But this is the first damage I've had. Fortunately, it was pretty minor. It could have been a lot worse.”

Last July, Sanchez took over as the backup catcher when Michael McKenry had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus. McKenry was released over the winter and now is with the Colorado Rockies.

Stewart hopes to fly to Pittsburgh with the team for the March 31 season opener against the Chicago Cubs. After that, he'll return to Florida to work himself into game shape during extended spring training.

Martin is confident the Pirates will be fine while Stewart is out.

“For me, it's not that big of a concern,” Martin said. “Stewie's going to be back in four to six weeks or however long it takes. Tony is young and healthy. We have depth here and I'm not afraid to catch a large portion of the games.”

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