Now, the strong emergence of Eduardo Sanchez this past season means there may be a new leader of the pack as well as our clear selection as the 2009 Springfield Cardinals Reliever of the Year.
In late May, one experiment ended as another began with the Double-A Cardinals. With the release of left-handed reliever Joe Williams, a student of unorthodox pitching instructor Dr. Mike Marshall, the St. Louis Cardinals promoted Sanchez from the Palm Beach Cardinals to their Texas League club.
The 20-year-old Venezuelan right-hander with the upper-90's heater had been lights-out in his A-Advanced debut after having spent the entire 2008 season with Class A Quad Cities. In 25 innings over 19 games with Palm Beach, Sanchez allowed just four runs for a 1.44 ERA. Slight of build at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, Sanchez pitched much larger, fanning 26 and issuing just five free passes.
Despite Sanchez having been promoted, opposing Florida State League coaches did not forget him. In June, he was voted onto the FSL South Division All-Star roster, though he was unable to play in the game since he was not coming back from Springfield – likely ever.
His new manager, Springfield's Ron "Pop" Warner, was immediately impressed – once Sanchez took the mound, that is.
"When I first saw him pitch, I thought, 'Electric stuff, electric arm.' A power fastball from a little guy who is 20 years old. Two secondary pitches that are very serviceable right now at the Double-A level," Warner said.
Through his first 27 Double-A games, Sanchez held Texas League teams to a 2.73 ERA and batters to a collective .164 average, while striking out 38 and walking nine in 33 innings pitched. With Springfield closer Francisco Samuel struggling, recent arrival Sanchez was anointed the new closer in early August.
As the season neared its end, Sanchez was named our Scout.com Cardinals Minor League Reliever of the Month for August. In 15 innings, he logged 19 strikeouts and picked up six saves. In 10 of his 12 August outings, opponents were held scoreless.
Sanchez dropped off a bit near the end as he was touched up in his first September outing, allowing three runs in one inning. He then had a similar showing in his only playoff appearance as Springfield was swept in the first round. Warner thinks his closer just ran out of gas.
He has a strong point as Sanchez' 61 appearances in 2009 was just one off his career total for his first three professional seasons combined. The Cardinals originally signed Sanchez as a non-drafted free agent in December, 2005 at the age of 16.
"Maybe he tried to go at it a little too hard, a little too fast sometimes, unlike backing off a little bit like he did when he was pitching in the seventh inning," his manager observed. "He hit a little bit of a wall at the end, but being a 20-year-old kid, we couldn't have asked any more from him. He did a very good job for us."
A very good job, indeed. Sanchez completed his breakout season having picked up ten saves and two wins against no losses for Springfield. His ERA was 2.70 in 50 innings over 41 Double-A contests. Sanchez struck out 56, but also walked 20. Texas League opponents batted only .187 against him and his groundball-to-fly ball ratio was a solid 1.78-to-1.
As successful as Sanchez' season was, like all prospects, there is room for improvement. Warner offers a very educated perspective.
"Getting innings in, seeing the hitters and getting better at repeating his mechanics every time out is where Sanchez needs to focus," Warner said. "He gets a little loose with his mechanics and tries to overthrow at times.
"With a little more experience, he will realize that when things get faster, you slow down. If you go slower, you can repeat your mechanics as opposed to when you speed things up, things can get a little bit out of whack for him," Warner said.
It is unclear at this time whether or not Sanchez will be ready to make the step to Triple-A to start the 2010 season. "Pop" is from Missouri on this one – he wants to be shown.
"We'll have to see what he looks like when he comes in next spring," Warner said. "He is going to have to be a little more refined with the location of his pitches and be able to hit with his off-speed pitches more frequently because when you get to Triple-A, you had better pretty much have those things polished up. Now you are just learning how to get guys out a little bit more with a game plan."
Whether returning to Springfield, Missouri or moving on to Memphis, Tennessee, these are faraway destinations for a young man from Maracay, Venezuela barely out of his teens. Yet neither is his projected final destination.
"When he polishes up his secondary pitches and the location of his fastball, Sanchez will be a really good pitcher at the big league level," Warner concluded.
Once again, I am pleased to name Eduardo Sanchez our Scout.com Springfield Cardinals Reliever of the Year for 2009.
Note: To follow our entire series of Players of the Year at each level of the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, check back here daily. To see the roster of winners and article schedule, click here.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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