A trip to the Arizona Fall League may have been just what the doctor ordered for Detroit Tigers pitching prospect Humberto Sanchez.
The 22-year-old right-hander has been highly regarded since signing for a million-dollar bonus as a draft-and-follow in 2002, one day before his 19th birthday.
Armed with a sinking fastball in the low 90s as his out pitch, a 12-6 curveball with good potential, and a change-up that has been a work in progress, Sanchez's climb through the Detroit system had been slowed by a series of injuries.
"His main weakness has been not being able to stay healthy," said Erie SeaWolves pitching coach Mike Caldwell, who has worked with Sanchez this season and last, as well as during the 2005 Arizona Fall League with the Mesa Solar Sox. "It's never been anything serious, a sore this, a sore that, but he needs to stay healthy all year."
The maladies have included a knee injury suffered down the stretch in 2004 that required postseason surgery, as well as a strained oblique muscle followed by a groin strain that sidelined him for much of 2005. He did manage to work 64 2/3 innings in 15 games with Erie that year, allowing 72 hits and posting a 5.57 ERA.
At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, there was some concern about his conditioning contributing to the problem. But Sanchez opened a lot of eyes with his dominant performance in Arizona, as well as the hot start he's had this year in his second go-round at Erie.
In the six-team AFL, where the combined ERA was above 5.00, and on a team with a composite 5.32 mark, Sanchez finished third in the league with a 2.15 ERA in six starts, striking out 29 batters in as many innings. He was tied for fifth in strikeouts and innings pitched.
"Knowing I was healthy helped a lot, but going out there with some of the best Minor League guys from every system and knowing I belonged there helped me a lot confidence-wise," Sanchez said. "If you put in the work, the results usually come, and it all seems to be falling into place right now."
Caldwell was also pleased with his charge's showing in the league, not just with the statistical results but with his ability to maintain low pitch counts and throw several of his pitches for strikes. "What he put together was something special," he said. "And it looks like he went home and made an extra effort to work harder to stay in shape."
Indeed, Sanchez looks significantly lighter than his official weight of 230, thanks in part to working out regularly at Detroit's Lakeland facility, half an hour from his offseason home outside of Orlando.
And that conditioning and fall-ball momentum has snowballed into early success in the Eastern League, where he had a 1.96 ERA through his first four starts. In 23 innings, he'd allowed 19 hits and struck out 28. More notably, his command has been sharper, as evidenced by just seven walks, and league batters were hitting only .229 against him.
In those four starts, Sanchez had yet to walk more than two in a game, and had allowed just four hits in three of his outings. "I haven't seen him throw a game yet where he's gotten into trouble with his pitch count," Caldwell said. "I'm happy he's progressing and getting late into the ballgames for us."
Sanchez is happy too; happy to be feeling 100 percent for a change.
"Last year was just a struggle to stay on the field," he said. "I overtrained to get better (from the oblique strain suffered at the end of Spring Training) and hurt my groin, so it was one thing to another."
Born in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez moved to New York City when he was 10. "My mom moved here like every other immigrant looking for the American dream," said Sanchez, whose entire family eventually came to America from Santo Domingo.
He had played ball since he was 5, following in the footsteps of his dad who played amateur and semipro ball as a catcher. Sanchez caught, as well, until he came to New York and joined a Little League team coached by a local police officer in the 34th precinct. "We were just playing around and I got on the mound and I've been a pitcher ever since," he said.
Sanchez played high school ball at South Bronx High School and was drafted as a senior, but opted instead to head to Rockland Community College in the northern suburbs. An elbow injury cut short that season after just one inning, but the Tigers still took a chance on him in the 31st round of 2001.
Sanchez transferred to Connors State Junior College in Oklahoma for his sophomore year and was being mentioned as a potential first-round pick, so the Tigers knew they would have to pay big bucks to keep him from entering the draft for a third time.
Once signed, he moved up slowly but steadily through the system, doing the requisite progression through Class A Short-Season Oneonta, Class A West Michigan and Class A Advanced Lakeland, before hitting a roadblock at Erie in 2005.
His teammate and close friend for most, if not all, of those last three years was fellow pitcher Joel Zumaya, who is currently helping anchor the Detroit bullpen. The two speak several times a week by phone.
Unlike most best-friends, though, they didn't always room together on the road. Instead, Sanchez often roomed with teammates from the Dominican Republic who did not speak English (Zumaya is from California) and needed help from an interpreter.
"Even though I was young when I came to New York, I still remember what it was like to come here and not understand the language, to have to shake your head because you didn't understand what people were saying to you," he said. "This gave me an opportunity to help them get better at something they needed to know, and I took pride in that."
Now, Sanchez keeps an eye on Zumaya's outings in the big leagues, as well as those of fellow 2005 Erie teammate Justin Verlander and rookie Jordan Tata, and it gives him added hope for his own arrival there in the not too distant future.
Caldwell thinks that is a realistic hope.
"If the Tigers are going to trust guys up there like Tata and Verlander and Zumaya, then why wouldn't they bring up Sanchez?" he mused. "They're getting ready to turn the corner and go to some of the good strong arms in their system, and there is no reason that Humberto Sanchez can't be a part of that."
http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com/app/ ... &fext=.jsp
Here is a link to Humberto's stats so far this season.
http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com/app/ ... pid=458008
Last edited by Dannomyte on Tue Jun 20, 2006 9:08 am, edited 4 times in total.