Bucs' first pick in '09 drawing praise, but has room to grow

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There are still some things that Tony Sanchez just hasn't been able to get used to yet. It's the small things, like hitting alongside established catcher Ryan Doumit. Or using balls stamped with the words Major League Baseball. Or having his equipment bag carried out to the field for him.

A year ago, Sanchez was beginning the spring season with his Boston College teammates. Now he's sitting on a bench absorbing wisdom from former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen while participating in the Bucs' Major League camp.

"It's definitely like being a 12-year-old kid on Christmas," Sanchez said. "There's definitely a lot of awe from my side. It's a different world here. I'm not used to any of this stuff."

Funny thing is, though, that everyone else seems to think that Sanchez, the Pirates' first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, fits right in.

Take Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development, for example: "You look at him physically, he looks like he belongs. You watch him catch 'pens and his defensive tools, he belongs. And then when you watch him take BP, it looks like he belongs."

Or Sanguillen: "He really has impressed me for this being his first time. I don't think it's going to be too long before he's catching in the big leagues. Anything you tell him, he really appreciates and he does it."

Or manager John Russell, a former catcher himself: "He doesn't seem like he's intimidated much. I think he's got a great head on his shoulders and he's got talent. I think it's going to take him a long way."

Despite the effusive early praise, Sanchez remains realistic about his expectations for 2010 and his experience this spring. Less than a year removed from being the No. 4 overall pick in the Draft, he knows he's not here to compete for a big league roster spot. He's not going to step on any toes. And he's not feeling entitled to a single thing, despite his high Draft status.

Sanchez is here, quite simply, to learn.

"I'm just trying to take it all in," he said. "I'm in no rush to get anywhere, and I'm just enjoying the process. These guys have been around baseball for so much longer than I have, and they have so much to teach me."

Sanchez enters 2010 on the heels of a successful professional debut a year ago. Because he signed with the Pirates just days after being drafted, Sanchez had two months to get his feet wet in the Minors. And it went about as well as could be expected.

Touted particularly as a defensive specialist, he held his own in the low A South Atlantic League, where he hit .316 with 15 doubles, seven homers and 46 RBIs in 41 games. The organization then bumped Sanchez up to high A Lynchburg (Va.) just as that club was making a push for the postseason. In eight playoff games for the eventual Carolina League champion Hillcats, Sanchez homered, doubled and drove in three.

"I stayed with my same approach I had in college, and that's why I had some success," said Sanchez, who hit .346 with a .443 on-base percentage in his final season at BC. "I definitely wanted to get off to a good start and prove to people that I could hit with a wood bat."

There was praise for Sanchez's development behind the plate, too. He learned to call pitches (something he hadn't even done in high school) and became a student of scouting reports.

Endurance will be a big key for Sanchez as he prepares to open the year as the starting catcher for the Pirates' high A club in Bradenton. He played approximately a 55-game schedule each year with the Eagles, but doubled that workload in 2009 by tacking on an additional 56 Minor League games. He hardly made it through.

Sanchez admits now to being at only about 60 percent strength by the time the Carolina League playoffs rolled around, and talks openly about needing to improve his arm strength and arm endurance. The days of going all out for 55 games are now over.

"Tony obviously takes care of himself physically, but he plays the game extremely hard," Stark said. "It's not that we're saying, 'Hey, you have to cut back in terms of your effort level.' But it's realizing where you're extending that effort. It's about getting through the whole season and about being an everyday catcher for six months instead of three."

Sanchez, who Baseball America ranked the Bucs' third-best prospect at the end of 2009, is well aware of the fact that there are plenty of critics still skeptical about his ceiling. He's heard and read all the criticism -- about how he was picked way too high, about how the Pirates drafted him because of his low price tag, about how the organization passed over too many promising arms to take him. He understands that he has so much to prove.

But it's nothing Sanchez isn't used to. In fact, he flew under the radar in high school as coaches from big-time college programs were skeptical of his body shape and conditioning. He refers to himself a perpetual underdog.

"The doubters that I did have after the Pirates picked me just kind of fueled the fire," Sanchez said. "If you're picked that high, there's always going to be pressure. It just depends on how you deal with it.

"It's the same game I've always played, just with a lot better talent around me," he added. "I have fun wherever I'm playing. I just need to play my game, be who I am and keep a smile on my face."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs