PITTSBURGH — The Pirates did not know what they had when they signed free-agent left-hander Jonathan Sanchez to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training.
To illustrate that point, the Major League flipside of that agreement was heavily laced with incentives based on a point system weighted toward relief appearances. That, for a big league veteran who had come out of the bullpen only four times while making 125 starts the last five seasons.
And Sanchez himself did not know what he had left, explaining the reason he accepted a deal that included a guaranteed salary of $ 1,375,000 if he made the club, a significant drop from the $ 5.2 million he had averaged in 2011-12.
The uncertainty continued through the first week of Spring Training as Sanchez, auditioning in relief, allowed six hits and five runs in 3 1/3 innings — while issuing seven walks.
But the Bucs weren’t ready to throw in a quick towel. Sanchez was not ready to wave a white towel.
Manager Clint Hurdle began giving Sanchez the ball to start exhibitions, and he started a remarkable turnaround that earned him that Major League contract and a spot in the Pirates’ rotation. And, yes, those incentive points also cover starts.
“You have to have faith. And you have to keep working hard,” said Sanchez, sitting in front of his new locker at PNC Park on Opening Day, a couple hours before the Pirates began their 127th season and he began his second career. “I’ve been here a long enough time to know what it takes to be here.”
Going 10 innings in his first three Grapefruit League starts, allowing only five hits and two runs and — most noticeably — two walks, did it.
“It was like old times,” recalled Sanchez, one of the starting pitchers who helped the Giants reach the 2010 World Series by going 13-9 with a solid 3.07 ERA. “I was just getting ahead, throwing strike one and going from there. Fixed little things, made little adjustments.”
To Hurdle, the adjustments seemed to be mostly above the neck.
“He was out there pitching,” Hurdle said, “after being too cerebral and mechanical the first couple times. His rhythm and execution improved.”
To Sanchez, it was simply a matter of returning to his own element, of getting to start games and getting back into the routine of a starting pitcher.
“Not having been in the ‘pen for a long time, I just felt more comfortable starting games,” the 30-year-old Puerto Rican said. “That’s where I belong. Once I started, everything clicked, the way I used to be. I started having success.”
In one notable way, perhaps better than it ever was. Sanchez hasn’t been able to shake his reputation as an out-of-control lefty. Even in that 13-9 season for the Giants, he led the National League with 96 walks; the season before, when he fired a no-hitter, he walked 88.
Safe to say, his seven-year career has not included too many 10-inning stretches with merely two walks.
With his stuff finding its way into the strike zone, the Pirates had an easy call to make on Sanchez, especially once shoulder inflammation ruled Jeff Karstens out of the starting rotation to open the season.
“The offspeed pitches have been very effective and the fastball command has been enough,” general manager Neal Huntington said, when announcing Sanchez’s selection. “We’re also talking about a body of work. His 2010-11 seasons were very successful. Obviously, he struggled last year. What we saw in Spring Training was much closer to the 2010-11 guy than the ’12 guy. He had a tough year and is moving beyond it. In our minds, he has the weapons to do it on a consistent basis.”
Sanchez’s 2012 wasn’t just tough. It was tough to watch. Splitting the season between the Royals — Kansas City had acquired him from the Giants for Melky Cabrera — and the Rockies, he went 1-9 with an 8.07 ERA in 15 starts in which he averaged 4 1/3 innings and 3 1/2 walks.
“Everyone has ups and downs,” Sanchez said. “That was my down year. I’ve put it in the past, don’t even think about it, move forward. Things happen, and you can’t go back and change them. All you can do is turn the page to this year.”
Sanchez hopes to have found a new permanent home with his fourth team in the last 16 months.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “I want to show people I can pitch and stay with this team. They gave me a second opportunity. I hope I stay here longer.”
Sanchez’s stay will officially begin in a fitting place for a former member of the Giants. He is scheduled to start the Bucs’ first road game, Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.