Cubs hope lefty Jonathan Sanchez can harness his ‘explosive’ stuff
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter February 24, 2014 9:35PM
Updated: February 25, 2014 10:15AM
MESA, Ariz. — When Jonathan Sanchez felt his lower leg give way as he planted to field Randall Delgado’s bunt in August 2011 in Atlanta, he knew something was very wrong.
But he had no idea how far in the wrong direction it would send his budding career.
The high ankle sprain he suffered ended his season for the San Francisco Giants and had a carryover effect he said he fought all the way into last season, three teams later with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was a long, bruising fall from a breakout 2010 season that included winning the season-finale clincher that got the Giants into the playoffs and finished with a World Series start and a ring.
“It’s pretty hard to think about it,” he said. “When you’re up there with [Tim] Lincecum, [Barry] Zito, [Matt] Cain, [Madison] Bumgarner and then come here for the Chicago Cubs trying to make the team, it’s pretty hard.”
For the second year in a row, at 31, the hard-throwing Sanchez is starting over, competing for a roster spot with a new team as a minor-league free agent — the kind of reclamation project that is the common thread running through Cubs camp.
What’s different this time for Sanchez is that, after 137 starts in his last 143 games, he’s reinventing himself as a reliever. The Cubs are hoping to turn his electric stuff into lightning in a bottle for their rebuilt bullpen.
And this, too, is different, he said: “I’ve got my speed, my slider, my split — everything is there. I’m getting back to where I was.”
Teammate Nate Schierholtz knows what that would mean.
“He made guys look bad,” said Schierholtz, who also was with the Giants when Sanchez was at his best. “He wasn’t just getting contact outs. He was making guys look embarrassed at times. … When he’s on and he’s got his command, he’s dirty.”
Command always has been the most fragile part of Sanchez’s game. Even in his big 2010 season, he led the National League in walks and burned through enough pitches that he averaged less than six innings per start.
But his stuff rivaled the All-Stars and Cy Young winners on his staff. His 205 strikeouts and major-league-low .204 opponents’ batting average helped lead to a 3.07 ERA that was lower than those of Cain, Lincecum and Zito.
“You don’t see that kind of stuff out of a lefty that often,” said Cubs catcher Eli Whiteside, who caught Sanchez’s no-hitter with the Giants in 2009. “He had a perfect game going into the eighth that day. That was kind of unusual for him. But he’s got great stuff.”
“Explosive” is how pitching coach Chris Bosio describes it. “It’s being able to harness it.”
Especially as a bullpen guy who can’t waste time finding his stuff. Bosio said the staff is working on different angles, positions on the mound, even posture, to help him find his location quickly and repeatedly.
Sanchez said he’s fine with switching to relief. And while rediscovering his 2010 effectiveness sounds like a recipe for returning to rotation work, “It could be nasty in the pen, too,” he said.
Between incumbent lefty James Russell and free-agent acquisition Wesley Wright, the Cubs are open to taking three left-handers north when they break camp, especially if Travis Wood remains the only lefty in the rotation.
“I would take as many lefties as we possibly could,” Bosio said, “especially guys with arms like Sanchez.
“We’ve got some options,” he added, referring to left-handed inventory that also includes Zac Rosscup and side-arming Tommy Hottovy. “But Sanchez has got the best pure stuff.”