By Mike Steffanos
Duaner Sanchez began his pro career in 1996 with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. He signed as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic. He was a starting pitcher until 2002 when he was converted to a reliever in Double-A. That season Baseball America cited Sanchez for taking the "Biggest Leap Forward" in the D-backs system in their 2002 Midseason Report:
Righthander Duaner Sanchez has a live arm and an athletic body, but he did not always seem to have full concentration as a starter in 2001, a season in which he also missed a month because of a ligament sprain in his right elbow.
Moved to the bullpen in winter ball and kept there this spring, Sanchez has become a dominant closer at El Paso, hitting 101 mph on the radar gun twice and saving 13 games, leading to a late first-half promotion to the parent club.
Sanchez, 22, dropped several pitches when he moved to the bullpen and now relies mainly on his power package, a high 90s fastball and a slider. His changes helped his mental approach, too. "I wasn't that strong mentally," Sanchez said. "Back in the old days, when one of my teammates made an error, it would go to my head and I'd lose everything. I tried not to let everybody know, but they knew it because I'd lose all my concentration. Now, nothing bothers me right now."
Shortly after that report came out Sanchez was traded to the Pirates for Mike Fetters, a 37-year-old journeyman right-handed reliever. He made his major league debut later that year with the Pirates, and was selected by BA as the number five prospect in the Pirates system after the 2002 season. Here is a portion of the scouting report:
Strengths: Sanchez' fastball gained velocity and movement once he was used in shorter bursts. The heater normally sits in the 93-94 mph range, though he can dial it up to 97 when necessary. Sanchez also has a plus slider, though the Pirates asked him to shelve it in favor a curveball after he was called up in September.
Weaknesses: Sanchez has extremely thin legs, which causes some to wonder about his long-term durability. His command also needs work. He's a bit of a free spirit who has yet to totally accept that he is now a reliever instead of a starter.
The Pirates removed Sanchez from their major league roster following the season, necessitating putting him through waivers. Although at this point Sanchez only had 9 rather ineffective major league innings under his belt, this seems a strange decision on Pittsburgh's part to give up so quickly on a promising young reliever. The Dodgers snapped him right up, and he made their major league bullpen the following year out of spring training. After two solid years with the Dodgers Sanchez was traded along with Steve Schmoll to the Mets in exchange for Jae Seo and Tim Hamulack. The trade was roundly criticized at the time by the pundits -- this one from SI.com writer (and Yankees blogger) Alex Belth was fairly typical:
... In exchange for Seo and lefty Tim Hamulack, the Dodgers gave up a couple of decent relievers -- Duaner Sanchez and Steve Schmoll. Jon Weisman, author of Dodger Thoughts, agrees that L.A. got the better end of the deal. "Seo blew me away in August after he replaced Ishii in the Mets' rotation," he says. "I realize that some of that may have been luck, because he wasn't striking a lot of batters out, and he regressed a bit toward the end of the season." Though Weisman likes Sanchez's surging strikeout rate (7.79 per 9.0 innings) as well as his durability, he concludes, "Relievers are easier to come by, and I like the chances for Seo to add stability to the Dodger rotation and help the team more than Sanchez would have."
Both Belth and Weisman are very good bloggers who also write for SI.com, but I was amused at the time that Belth chose to interview a Dodgers blogger to "prove" that the Mets had come out on the short end of the deal with LA. I wonder how much of Jae Seo Weisman had really seen. In any case, time would show that it was quite a good deal for the Mets.
Although I like Jae Seo and expect him to bounce back to being a decent pitcher, both Belth and Weisman overlooked the fact that Jae Seo was a bottom of the rotation starter who added some pitches and snuck up on the league somewhat when he returned from the minors in 2005. After pitching well for Korea in the World Baseball Classic last spring, Seo completely faltered in LA. An ERA of just under 6 in 67 innings with the Dodgers earned Seo a ticket to oblivion -- otherwise known as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- where he pitched better, but still had a WHIP of 1.70. Sanchez, in the meantime, continued to blossom as a reliever, and seemed to welcome the spotlight in New York. He was clearly the Mets top setup man until a late night cab accident in late July cost him the rest of the season.
Here are Duaner Sanchez' major league numbers since his first complete MLB season with the Dodgers in 2004:
|2004 - Dodgers||67||80.0||9.1||5.0||3.0||1.0||3.38||.266||.335||.398|
|2005 - Dodgers||79||82.0||8.2||7.8||4.0||0.9||3.73||.248||.332||.403|
|2006 - NY Mets||49||55.1||7.0||7.2||3.9||0.5||2.60||.223||.316||.316|
Despite possessing a very good changeup, Sanchez has struggled some against lefties. Although he took another step forward in that regard last season, a look at his lefty/righty splits suggests there is still some work to do in that regard:
|Duaner Sanchez L/R Splits By Year|
The walk total against left-handers needs to come down. Sanchez' stuff is good enough that it can be frustrating figuring out why he can be prone to nibbling at times. His changeup is a quality pitch, and he should be able to improve his numbers against lefties similar to the success Aaron Heilman and Guillermo Mota enjoy. If Sanchez can do this, there is no reason why he couldn't be a pretty good major league closer some day. He's fearless, aggressive and seems to love the spotlight. With Billy Wagner turning 36 in July, it's important that the Mets have people in the bullpen that could possibly step up and fill in if Wagner is injured. Sanchez is a definite candidate for the job.
The huge question about Sanchez, of course, is how he will come back from the injury. He's only been cleared to throw again fairly recently, and there's no telling how he will bounce back until he's pitching regularly again. Although the injury obviously wasn't suffered while pitching, there is going to be plenty of concerns about his recovery from a serious injury to his shoulder until he proves he's 100 percent. Fortunately, he is young and has no history of arm problems. He's famous for not icing down his arm after he pitches.
Provided there are no complications from the surgery, expect Duaner Sanchez to eventually reclaim the eighth inning for his own again, although it would probably be wise if the Mets went a little slow with him early in the season. With Aaron Heilman seemingly surviving another winter's trade rumors, the Mets will be able to utilize their young and effective 1-2 eighth inning punch and should have no need to push Sanchez too hard in the early going.
2007 Bullpen Previews:
Chan Ho Park
Duaner Sanchez (This Article)
Four Other Names for You
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up