PITTSBURGH -- The way Tony Sanchez has been treated this week, it would be easy to mistake him for one of the key cogs to the Pirates' 2013 playoff wheel.
As the 25-year-old catcher has been making the rounds on the Pirates Caravan and then at PirateFest, he's been feted as an established star, not as a player who made his big league debut in 2013 and appeared in only 22 games. Sanchez, Pittsburgh's No. 11 prospect, wasn't even on Pittsburgh's postseason roster, though it's difficult to tell based on the treatment he's received.
"It's overwhelming," said Sanchez shortly before beginning his autograph session at PirateFest on Sunday. "The amount of love the fans have shown me, someone who played such a small part in the success of the team, is unbelievable. I love it. I was only there for a couple of months, but I feel like I was there for a few years. I'm happy I finally made it here. It was one of my goals. I wanted to come to PirateFest and the Caravan after being a big leaguer."
Sanchez hit .233/.288/.400 in 60 at-bats with the Pirates, but did get some valuable playing time, pairing with Francisco Liriano as a very successful battery late in the year. Considering how far Sanchez has come -- throwing issues severely hampered his climb up the organizational ladder -- the fact he was allowed behind the plate during a Major League playoff race spoke volumes about where he is now.
"It hasn't been easy," Sanchez said. "I've been at the bottom of the barrel as far as adversity goes. Last year was huge for my confidence and my development. To see that I can contribute to a winning ballclub behind the plate was huge for me. That Liriano trusted me enough to catch him, the other guys as well, was big. It's only going to be more huge for me this year to get more time, keep building on that confidence and seeing how good I can be at this level of baseball."
Sanchez knows he may have to wait, again, to test his skills at the highest level. The Pirates acquired veteran Chris Stewart to be Russell Martin's backup in 2014. General manager Neal Huntington has been up front with Sanchez, telling him a backup would be brought in, but also explaining that it shouldn't be seen as a slight.
"In Tony's situation, I've been a part of two different opportunities for a young catcher to be a backup catcher and we've watched that young catcher regress significantly," Huntington said. "We hope we can keep Russ Martin here for years, but the reality of free agency and how weak the market will be next year, is we're probably going to have to replace Russ Martin, so how do we best replace him with Tony Sanchez? How do we make sure Tony is in the best possible situation to be ready to be our catcher, if there's an injury this year or if Russ leaves via free agency next year? The answer is to go play on a regular and consistent basis.
"This move was as much about 2015 and having Tony in a position to hit the ground running and be our guy. I do feel his pain. He's ready to be a big league catcher right now. We just felt the best way to make sure he was ready to be a guy in 2015 was to play more."
That means Sanchez is ticketed for Triple-A Indianapolis in 2014. Talking with the 2009 first-round Draft selection about it, it quickly becomes clear that Sanchez hasn't just heard Huntington's message, he's embraced it.
"It's the same place I was last year," Sanchez said. "I'm going to go to Indy and hit my way out of there. I knew they were going to sign somebody, because they weren't going to want me to back up Russ. Russ is the kind of guy who isn't going to come out of the lineup unless he breaks a bone. He wants to be in the lineup. When Neal called and told me we don't want you backing up Russ because you're not going to play at all, I completely understand. I'll go back to Indy, hit my way out of there, and get as much time up there as possible."
Decker eager to prove himself in Spring Training
PITTSBURGH -- He's the new guy in town and given that he's picked up a grand total of 31 big league at-bats in his career, Jaff Decker is truly introducing himself to Pittsburgh for the first time.
The 23-year-old outfielder came to the organization in late November along with reliever Miles Mikolas in return for prospect Alex Dickerson. Pirates fans won't get to see what Decker looks like on the field until he reports to Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla., but at least they got a chance to get to know each other a bit during the Pirates Caravan and this weekend at PirateFest.
"I came in, got to meet some of the guys, get my feet wet, see the fanbase that's around and see how important the Pirates are to these fans," Decker said. "Instead of going to Spring Training not knowing anybody, I'm here for a week, I got to meet a lot of the guys. That'll make it a little easier transition going into the spring, so I can just worry about going to play ball now."
Decker also got to get up close and personal with a fanbase still energized from last year's playoff run. After watching the Pirates in the playoffs last year, he was eager to see what all the excitement was about. With PirateFest now over, he'll get to head home using the energy and warmth he received from the fans to carry him into Spring Training.
"I've never seen a fanbase like this," Decker said. "I've just heard about it. Everybody that comes up to me welcomes me with open arms. They love their Pirates. I can see how special it is with how far they went, how special last year was for the fans.
"Growing up, loving baseball, you see the World Series, you see the playoff atmosphere, that's what you want to be a part of. I was sitting with my little brother last year watching the Pirates' Wild Card Game, and he said, 'When am I going to see you playing in a game like that?' It's pretty funny now, seeing how the fans are, it's pretty cool. On the field, it's not something I've experienced yet, but I talked with Russell Martin and he said it's awesome, knowing you have 50,000 fans that have your back."
Decker could get the chance to experience it first-hand in 2014. As a young player who is just about big-league ready, the Pirates didn't acquire him in that trade only to add organizational depth. Especially with the way the offseason has gone -- free-agent options at corner outfield have signed for deals much larger than the Pirates felt comfortable doling out -- Decker is expected to be one of a group of corner outfielders who will get the chance to show what they can do in Spring Training, joining Jose Tabata, Travis Snider and Andrew Lambo.
"We have a group of guys there," general manager Neal Huntington said after an hour of answering PirateFest questions at Ask the Management. "Tabata had a good August, then we traded for [Marlon] Byrd, [Starling] Marte came back and Tabata kind of got pushed to the side. We think he's ready to have some more consistent production. Lambo is a 24-year-old who had 30-plus home runs [in the Minors], but really didn't get a lot of attention. Snider had toe surgery this offseason, it bothered him for a long time and impacted his mechanics. Jaff Decker's a guy, we love the on-base [percentage], we think there's some power there. We like the overall package there.
"Among those four, given the market and where it's gone, we feel we're going to have some internal options to choose from, and we have Gregory Polanco on the horizon. We've got some guys we're looking forward to capitalizing on opportunities, and hopefully they'll take it and run with it."
Decker plans to do everything he can to be at least one of those who see playing time in right field in 2014. He was healthy in '13, the first time in a while he says he was "100 percent healthy." Decker has long been an on-base machine, with a career .402 OBP in the Minor Leagues. The Pirates finished eighth in the National League last season in that category, so perhaps this could be a good match.
"There's Pedro [Alvarez] in the middle of the lineup, they have an MVP [Andrew McCutchen] hitting 3," Decker said. "I feel like getting on base is just a plus for those guys. It doesn't really matter if you hit .300, but if you're helping the team win, that's what matters. If it takes getting on base, if it takes getting base hits, then that's what it takes to get wins.
"Neal told me I have an open opportunity. I have an opportunity to do something in the big leagues. I'm excited to be a part of this and help this team go further than they did."