Anibal Sanchez is unsure if his playing career will extend beyond 2018, but in the meantime, he wants to help the Braves – and their young arms – win a World Series.
Sanchez is set to face the Phillies on Saturday, which positions him to potentially start game 2 or 3 of the National League Division Series. That’s a dramatic leap for the 34-year-old who wasn’t signed until mid-February, then re-entered the free-agent pool a month later.
“I’m glad to be in that position,” he said. “I never expected that when I got released in spring training by the Minnesota Twins. But I’m here and it’s a blessing, every opportunity I’ve got in my career. And signing with a young team, nobody picked this team and now we’re here.”
A bargain-bin signing doesn’t do Sanchez justice. Factoring in compensation and performance, it could be argued he was among baseball’s best free-agent additions.
Sanchez has earned a 2.96 ERA across 24 appearances (23 starts). He’s contributed 128 strikeouts against 39 walks in 130-1/3 innings. Keep in mind he took a nasty fall during warm-ups April 18, yet returned from the hamstring injury. He also overcame a calf injury that put him on the disabled list in the second half.
Yet he persevered. He credits his teammates, citing baseball’s contagiousness. He believes in an osmosis effect, that teammates play well and that rubs off on others.
“When I came to Detroit in 2012, my first couple outings weren’t good,” Sanchez said. “But the team was so good at the end and we were in a good position. That didn’t happen here. Everyone pitched well. Everybody got that up and down season, but in the end everyone supports one another.
“Everyone treats this like a family. And when you have that opportunity, when you’re down, someone is there to help you. That’s what it’s like here, and that’s why I’ve had the season that I’ve had.”
Sanchez noticed it early. He didn’t join the Braves until mid-March, when the team acknowledged it was nothing more than a cheap flier. And it was the first week of the regular season, when Sanchez debuted against the Nationals, that he declared the Braves a playoff team.
“The first day I came here, I landed in Atlanta and pitched against Washington,” he said. “I saw the team, and the next day I said “(general manager) Alex (Anthopoulos), how are you man?” Just normal conversation. I saw the chemistry, the talent the team had inside, all the preparations, and it really surprised me. I’ve been on two teams already and it’s nothing like here. Even on the 2012 Tigers, we had an unbelievable team, but here was totally different. I could see that from the beginning. I told him, ‘You guys have a pretty good team. Guys inside, how they prepare to play baseball.’ ”
High praise: Sanchez’s 2012 Tigers won the American League pennant. He was even more impressed by the youthful Braves, and he continued reminding Anthopoulos of his prediction throughout the season.
He recalled telling Anthopoulos, “ ‘You know that you have a winning team inside?’ And he was like, ‘How do you know that in the first week?’ (I said) ‘You have a winning team. You’ll see at the end of the season where we’re going to be.’
“Every time they got closer and closer to the playoffs, I told him, ‘You remember what I told you?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes man. How did you know that?’ He always had a surprised face when we talked about it.”
The Braves’ season was stacked with the unexpected. But it was easier to envision Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies breaking out than Sanchez’s renaissance.
Manager Brian Snitker often refers to Sanchez as an extra coach. He instructs the newbie arms, even assisting the young veterans such as Mike Foltynewicz. He’s offering his postseason wisdom, explaining the importance of focus and preparation, especially on the road.
He’s been as valuable behind the scenes as he has been on the mound. Often so much emphasis is placed on “veteran presence,” or some semblance of the phrase. Sanchez embodies it.
But that hasn’t ensured another comeback. Sanchez remembers his struggles finding work last winter, which was notoriously poor for free agents, many of whom waited until spring training to find their new employers.
Because of that, when he was asked if this season has motivated him to play a few more, he paused.
“I don’t know, man,” Sanchez said. “I want to continue playing, but since everything happened last offseason, I don’t want to think too much about what I’m going to do with my future. I just want to prepare every day. Last offseason wasn’t easy for free agency. I like to control what I can control. No one can control what will happen in the next offseason, so I want to finish strong and help this team to the end, win the World Series.”
As his time with the Braves has illustrated, Sanchez hopes to coach whenever he calls it a career, though he won’t want to re-enter the gauntlet just after retiring.
“Yes, of course (I’d want to coach),” he said. “I’d like to help players when I retire. But not next year. Believe me, if I retire, I have a family that needs time. I have a daughter and son that I need to care for. I want to be a present father and be there for them for a while. And probably long-term, I don’t want to say a time, but it wouldn’t be right after I retire.”
Maybe in the Braves’ eyes, Sanchez’s coaching career has already begun - and they’re better for it.