Late in the 2018 season, right-hander Anibal Sanchez said he wasn’t sure whether he’d continue pitching or retire, but the veteran righty now tells Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he hopes to pitch for multiple seasons beyond the 2018 campaign and would “love” to return to the Braves.
It’s the second straight offseason where a return to the Majors for Sanchez was somewhat up in the air, although the script has flipped substantially over the past 12 months. Whereas last October, the question was one of whether Sanchez had anything left in the tank, this winter it was merely one of whether he had a desire to return for his age-35 season.
Sanchez put to rest any concerns about his ability to succeed against Major League hitters, tossing 136 2/3 innings of 2.83 ERA ball with 8.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.99 HR/9 and a 45 percent ground-ball after joining the Atlanta organization on a minor league deal late in Spring Training. There was arguably no better bargain pickup last offseason than Sanchez, who played a significant role in helping the upstart Braves secure the NL East title.
Sanchez has never been a flamethrower, and this year’s 90.7 mph average on his fastball was largely in line with the velocity he’d displayed over the final few seasons of an ill-fated five-year deal in Detroit. However, he ramped up the use of his cutter, throwing that at a 23 percent clip, per Fangraphs, while also leaning a bit more on his changeup and relying less on his slider. It’s hard to argue with the results, as Sanchez posted his best swinging-strike rate and chase rate of the past half decade. Opponents seemingly had a difficult time squaring up that more prominently featured cut fastball; Sanchez’s hard-contact rate plummeted by nearly 10 percent, and his line-drive rate dropped from 24.7 percent to 18 percent.
There’s an argument to be made that the Braves have enough pitching depth to get by even without Sanchez and should either target a more definitive front-of-the-rotation upgrade or spend more heavily in the bullpen, in right field or at catcher. But Sanchez was an invaluable depth piece who also played a significant role in the Atlanta clubhouse as a veteran leader on a young pitching staff. He’s spoken to Burns in the past about his desire to work as a coach after his playing days are done, and the young Braves staff gives him ample opportunity to impart some of his experience on younger pitchers.
Sanchez originally inked a non-guaranteed Major League deal with the Twins last spring, but Minnesota cut him loose upon signing right-hander Lance Lynn — a sequence that seemed logical at the time but, in retrospect, certainly didn’t work out in the Twins’ favor. Minnesota’s loss was Atlanta’s gain, but this time around in free agency, Sanchez won’t have to settle for a non-guaranteed deal. At the very least, he seems poised to command a solid salary on a one-year deal, and his success could potentially even make a two-year deal plausible.