By: Will Burchfield
There was an inevitability to this.
When Anibal Sanchez accepted a demotion to Triple-A Toledo in May, one got the feeling that he’d eventually be back. He wanted to make himself back into a starter, and the Tigers wanted to give him a shot.
So here he is.
The Tigers recalled Sanchez on Monday and sent down Buck Farmer after the latter was shelled in his second straight start. Sanchez will make his first start of the season for the Tigers on Monday night – and his first since Sept. 22 of last year – versus the Mariners.
Whether or not he performs well, the Tigers have something to gain.
Let’s start with the positive scenario, albeit the unlikely one.
The Tigers are once again in need of a fifth starter. Farmer filled the void well for two outings in the wake of Matthew Boyd’s demotion, but quickly – and drastically – fell off the rails. If Sanchez performs well on Monday night, back in the comfort of his traditional role, maybe he can step into the rotation for the time being.
“If all of a sudden he has a pick up in velocity, he’s sharp – in spring training he had three outstanding outings – if something like that continues to work out, maybe then we have something there that we can cling onto and add him to our pitching staff again,” said GM Al Avila in the wake of Sanchez’s demotion. “So it’s kind of an experiment to see if we can get any improvement out of him.”
The team’s other four starters have begun to stabilize, most notably Jordan Zimmermann. Sanchez could complete the quintet. His last start for the MudHens, in which he gave up one run on four hits while striking out seven over five innings, was his best of the year.
“He’s been throwing the ball well, good changeup, velocity has been up to 93 (mph). He had the hamstring injury two starts ago but that’s behind him now. He’s been up to 85, just under 85 pitches, his last outing,” Ausmus told reporters on Sunday.
There’s a huge gap between Triple-A hitters and big-league hitters, as Ausmus is wont to point out. And Sanchez has been crushed by the latter dating back to the 2015 season. It’d be a real surprise to see the 33-year-old suddenly reverse course.
But if he does, the Tigers will benefit and maybe, just maybe, Sanchez will regain some trade value.
If he doesn’t, it’s not the worst thing either.
The Tigers have held onto Sanchez for a long time, longer than they’ve needed to. Enticed by his track record, teased by flashes of the past and somewhat paralyzed by his $16 million salary, the Tigers have given Sanchez chance after chance after chance. Their loyalty has yielded very little reward.
Here they are, turning to Sanchez again. Is this his last chance to prove himself? It may well be.
Said Avila last month, “He’s never worked out of the bullpen. He’s been a starter and he doesn’t feel that he can be consistently good without having enough work. So we figured it wouldn’t hurt just to send him down there (to Toledo) and get him in the starting rotation, start him every fifth day where he can have a routine as a starter and see how he does.”
Sanchez passed the first test, albeit not in flying colors. In four starts for the MudHens, he went 0-2 with a 4.60 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP and 20 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. Feeling that was good enough, and because Boyd wasn’t available to start on Monday having pitched on Saturday, the Tigers dipped once more into the Sanchez well.
When he toes the mound on Monday night he’ll have no more alibis. He’s back in his traditional role as a starter, his arm has been stretched out and he’s pitching on five days of rest. This is what Sanchez wanted. This is what the Tigers were willing to give him — out of loyalty, out of respect and out of a sliver of hope that he can turn back the clock.
But this is it. It has to be. If Sanchez can’t hack it versus the Mariners, the Tigers have no further reason to keep him on the roster, in Detroit or otherwise. They’ll have all the evidence they need that the experiment is doomed. In that case, they may decide to cut bait with Sanchez once and for all.
The Tigers need to reach a conclusion with Sanchez. His start on Monday will help them do so.