BRADENTON, Fla. -- NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez may begin this season in the same place he was on Opening Day last year: on the Pittsburgh Pirates' bench.
Sanchez, out since March 6 with a sprained ligament in his right knee, still can't play and the Pirates are weighing whether he should go on the disabled list, even if it is for only a week.
Sanchez is hitting and fielding ground balls but can't run at full speed. Until he is, Sanchez can't get the at-bats he needs, not even as a designated hitter in a minor league game.
"You've got to be able to run the bases," Sanchez said.
The injury, which occurred as Sanchez turned a double play at second base in an exhibition game against the Phillies, has lingered much longer than the Pirates and Sanchez thought it would and has forced him to miss nearly three weeks of game action.
If Sanchez can run by the middle of the week, he still might have time to be ready for the opener at Houston on April 2. He could get 8 to 10 at-bats a day for three or four days in the minor league camp, which might be enough to get him readjusted to facing live pitching.
But general manager Dave Littlefield said Sunday that with spring training winding down -- the team breaks camp next Saturday -- the Pirates must begin considering alternatives. If Sanchez can't go, former starting second baseman Jose Castillo likely would start there on Opening Day after spending most of camp at third base.
"You always have to consider both ends, and it's easier to deal with the end that goes well, but you have to be prepared for the situation that doesn't go well," Littlefield said.
The Pirates could place Sanchez on the disabled list when camp ends and backdate it nine days, but he would still miss the first week of the season against Houston and Cincinnati.
Sanchez, a onetime Boston Red Sox farmhand who was dealt to Pittsburgh in 2003, began last season as a utility infielder but played his way into the lineup at third base within a month. He went on to hit .344 with six homers and 85 RBIs, beating out Florida's Miguel Cabrera by five points to win the Pirates' first National League batting title since Bill Madlock did so in 1983.
Sanchez, 29, missed two-thirds of the 2004 season with a bone spur in his right ankle that caused him to spend nearly three months in the Pirates' extended spring training camp. If he is not ready for Opening Day, he may remain in Bradenton to play in minor league games until he is able to rejoin the Pirates.