The ground was laid late last summer. Pitching for the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits one year ago, the then-19-year-old yielded just two runs in his final 14 innings (1.29 ERA) over ten games, while walking four and striking out 13.
To go along with a 2.86 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings in 2008, the Venezuelan allowed just one home run, his first given up in two seasons. He did exhibit some youthful wildness, walking 25 and hitting eight batters.
Last winter, Sanchez did not receive a single vote in our annual top 40 prospect ranking. He appeared in six games in the Venezuelan Parallel league, picking up a pair of saves and registering a 2.25 ERA.
Not everyone was underestimating Sanchez, however. Every afternoon during spring training, Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch was either perched in the high tower overlooking the Jupiter playing fields or was standing in the hot sun near the backstop. On those days Sanchez pitched, Vuch was one of the many intently studying the 5-foot-11, 155-pounder's explosive delivery.
"Eduardo was a guy that we were looking forward to seeing pitch in 2009, after his strong second half in 2008, and he certainly didn't disappoint," Vuch recalls.
Starting this season with A-Advanced Palm Beach, Sanchez picked up right where he left off. The righty yielded just four runs in 25 innings over 19 games, for a 1.44 ERA. He fanned 26 and issued just five free passes.
Vuch describes what he has seen in Sanchez. "Despite an unimposing frame, he's got a big arm, with an explosive fastball and a nasty slider and an ability to throw both pitches consistently for strikes."
The Cardinals brass were impressed with his results in the pitching-friendly Florida State League, leading to a late-May bump up to Springfield. Vuch was among those who felt Sanchez was ready to introduce his upper-90's heater to Texas League batters, a notorious hitters' league.
"Even though he pitched all year at 20 years old, he earned the opportunity to begin the year at Palm Beach and didn't take long to show that he was ready for an even greater challenge at Springfield," Vuch explained.
Sanchez certainly took to Double-A quickly. Through his first 27 games there, he held teams to a 2.73 ERA and batters to a collective .164 average, while striking out 38 and walking nine in 33 innings pitched. FSL coaches remembered him with a berth on their All-Star team despite his promotion.
His Springfield manager, Ron "Pop" Warner, had this to say about Sanchez. "When I first saw him pitch, I thought, ‘Electric stuff, electric arm'."
In August, with closer Francisco Samuel struggling, Warner gave Sanchez his ninth inning. When the month was through, he had registered ten scoreless outings in 12 tries and picked up six saves, pitching superbly enough to be named our Scout.com/The Cardinal Nation Cardinals Reliever of the Month.
Sanchez completed his breakout season with a total of 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, and walked 20. Texas League opponents batted only .187 against him and his groundball-to-fly ball ratio was a solid 1.78-to-1.
Warner minced no words when looking ahead into Sanchez' future. "When he polishes up his secondary pitches and the location of his fastball, he will be a really good pitcher at the big league level," his manager concluded.
Earlier, Sanchez was named our Scout.com/The Cardinal Nation Springfield Cardinals Relief Pitcher of the Year. The Cardinal Nation subscribers can check out more of Warner's comments on Sanchez' breakout season.
Vuch spoke for many when summing the youngster up this way. "Sanchez is going to be exciting to watch in the next few years."
I am pleased to name Eduardo Sanchez the Scout.com/The Cardinal Nation Cardinals Minor League Relief Pitcher 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 email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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