Sanchez waiting for career to take off

Major League Baseball is a tough racket, where certainly nothing is guaranteed.

Tony Sanchez knows that all too well.

Sanchez, the catcher who was a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2009 Major League Baseball draft, and its fourth pick overall, was deemed one of the Pirates’ stars of the future.

He still may be, but that future is currently on hold.

The Pirates signed five-time National League all-star catcher Russell Martin to a two-year free-agent contract last winter, and recently acquired veteran backup Chris Stewart from one of Martin’s old teams, the New York Yankees.

That means the writing is on the wall for Sanchez, who will almost surely begin the 2014 season with the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate at Indianapolis.

Sanchez got his indoctrination into the big leagues with the Pirates during the 2013 season, appearing in 22 games and hitting .233 with two homers and five RBIs as Martin’s backup after a season-ending knee injury had sidelined Michael McKenry. The Pirates recently released McKenry and acquired the 31-year-old Stewart, who will be slotted, at least initially in the 2014 season, to handle the backup duties behind Martin.

Sanchez took the politically correct angle when asked about the situation during the recent Pirates CARE-a-van visit to Altoona’s James E. Van Zandt Medical Center.

“I knew that they were going to grab somebody,” Sanchez said. “Everybody would love to be in the major leagues all season long, but the fact is that I’m still a rookie, and there are still a lot of areas in which I need to improve. My work ethic has never been in question, and I’ll start off in Indianapolis, get off to a hot start like I did last year, and hit my way out of there.”

The durable Martin is an everyday catcher, and the Pirates were looking for a veteran backup after releasing McKenry. Stewart fills that void, but Sanchez knows that the door is still open for him if he puts in the effort.

“Whenever they feel that they need me, or that I’m ready, I’ll come back up,” Sanchez said. “I have to work on my game from both sides of the plate – pitch-calling from behind the plate, and pitch selection when I’m batting. I also have to work on my working relationships with the starting and relief pitchers. It never stops. There are a lot of things that I need to improve on.”

Martin and McKenry both helped Sanchez begin to learn the ropes at the big-league level in 2013.

“Russell and Mac [McKenry] were both huge in my development,” said Sanchez, a Miami native and former standout at Boston College. “Any success that I experienced in the big leagues last year was because I watched what Russell did and how he called pitches in certain situations. And Mac was there for me just as much as Russell was.

“But Russell is the kind of player who does not come out of the lineup,” Sanchez added. “He plays every day, and for me to sit in the big leagues and catch just once a week would be detrimental to my career.”

It’s a career that still holds much promise, according to Pirates’ reliever Tony Watson, who also visited Altoona Thursday.

“He’s obviously a good catcher, one of the top prospects in the game, and Russell is teaching him a lot,” Watson said of Sanchez.

Sanchez hopes that the lessons he has learned will help him on the comeback trail this season.

“I’m going to have to go down to AAA and prove myself,” he said. “I’m physically and mentally prepared to do that. Last year, I got my feet wet in the big leagues. Now, it’s time to make a splash.”