Sanchez to get his shot at first base with Pirates

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, March 30, 2014, 10:06 p.m.

The path to success is not always a straight line going up. It can level off, it can dive into deep valleys, it can be broken and incomplete for short stretches. But, eventually, it will rise.

That mantra has sustained Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez over the past couple of seasons.

At the start, things went smoothly for Sanchez. Drafted by his hometown team. Sweet swinger in the minor leagues. Top-five finisher for Rookie of the Year. Named to the NL All-Star team. Up, up and away.

Then, the crash.

In 2012, Sanchez was the Miami Marlins' Opening Day starter for the third consecutive year. In mid-May, he was demoted to the minors. Six weeks later, he was traded to the Pirates and returned to the big leagues, but only as a platoon player.

Last season, Sanchez batted .233 and got less than half as many at-bats as he did in either 2010 or 2011. Pirates management spent this past offseason openly trolling for a new first baseman.

After failing in the free-agent and trade markets, the Pirates launched the Andrew Lambo Experiment in spring training. Rather than hand the position to Sanchez, they tried to mold a minor league outfielder into a major league first baseman.

The experiment failed. Lambo spent all his time trying to learn the nuances of playing the position and seemingly forgot how to hit. In the final week of camp, he was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis.

The Pirates will open the season Monday with Sanchez as their de facto regular first baseman. His backup is journeyman Travis Ishikawa.

“Gone through some tough times,” Sanchez said. “That does one of two things to a player — it either destroys him or it makes him stronger. It's definitely made me stronger, made me understand the game more. It made me appreciate it more, too. I still love the game.”

There was a lot of buzz around Lambo and Ishikawa during spring training. Meanwhile, Sanchez went almost unnoticed as he batted .303 with an .833 on-base plus slugging percentage.

“It was a productive spring for him,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I know he feels there's much more he can add to our offense, and he's looking forward to the opportunity to do it.”

The Sanchez-Ishikawa situation won't be a true platoon. Hurdle said he'll go with whoever has the hot hand and provides the best matchup, offensively and defensively, on a given day.

In five seasons in the majors, Ishikawa has gotten more than 158 at-bats only once. So, even though Sanchez won't have the “everyday starter” label, that's essentially the role he'll fill.

“Gaby has a very quiet, steady presence to everything he does,” Hurdle said. “He seems older beyond his years. He's accomplished some things in the game, and he's had to battle the last couple of years. It's made him tougher. He's confident, as well. He knows he has value, and he has a role to play and he wants more.”

Sanchez's path seems to have taken an upward turn again, but nothing is guaranteed. His struggles created legions of doubters, perhaps including a few in the front office. General manager Neal Huntington continues to probe for a first baseman.

For now, Sanchez is eager to get the season underway and see where it takes him.

“I'm definitely happy with where I'm at — physically, mentally, everything about it,” Sanchez said. “The offseason definitely helped me out. I worked real hard. Now, it's about continuing to do it.”

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

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