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2017 Tigers player preview: Anibal Sanchez is on his last legs

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The pitcher has one last chance to make a comeback, but it might already be too late

Pittsburgh Pirates v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

In September of 2006, less than three months after his MLB debut, Anibal Sanchez pitched a no-hitter.

For a rookie pitcher who had spent the first part of his season in the minors, it was the kind of moment that starts a career off in a big way. Sanchez was telling the baseball world “I’m here and I’m going to do something great.” For Sanchez, however, that road to greatness was never going to be an easy one. In 2007 he went back down to the minors, he had surgery, he struggled with his command.

In 2017 he is struggling again, but this time around there’s none of that rookie spark left. The player who pitched a no-hitter isn’t there anymore, and he may not have it in him to take on another season as a starting pitcher.

Anibal Sanchez’s time has run out, and if he’s going to prove he still belongs in the starting rotation, it’s now or never.

The Tigers acquired Sanchez in 2012 as part of a trade that sent three prospects to Miami, and with the power of hindsight on our side was clearly a winning exchange for the Tigers. Sanchez went on to have a staggeringly good 2013 season, obliterating all the expectations fans had for him. That season, as part of one of the strongest rotations in Tigers history, Sanchez had a 2.57 ERA and a 2.39 FIP. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting and seemed to cement himself in the starting rotation.

That’s where the problem begins with how Tigers fans view Sanchez. 2013 was not the norm by any stretch, but rather a magnificent outlier that happened to arrive right when the Tigers had their strongest pitching staff. Sanchez, by all available statistics, is not as good as his 2013 season implied. He is not as good as his 2006 no-hitter. He is a pitcher who has bright moments of excellence in an otherwise very average career.

For example, if one were to look at his first season with the Marlins, a cursory glance would show a strong 2.83 ERA. His FIP for that season, however, was a 4.22, which goes to show why one stat shouldn’t be the total measure of a player’s season. His career walk rate is 3.1 and has been as high as 5.7, meanwhile his strikeout rate — which was an astonishing 10.0 in 2013 — averages a 7.9. These are not ace numbers. Simply put, Sanchez was always destined for an average career, but his breakout 2013 season, arriving so soon after the Tigers signed him, convinced viewers he was a better pitcher than he actually was.

What makes it worse, is that the numbers might have fooled Sanchez into thinking the same thing. It’s hard not to get caught up in that kind of excitement and expectation, especially when it comes during a stretch when the Tigers were playing their best baseball in almost a decade. The roller coaster of his career continued in 2014 with two stints on the disabled list. When he returned in 2015, supposedly in better health, he had a 10-10 record for the season and a FIP of 4.73. The next year his stats declined further, but the Tigers used him more because of other members of the pitching staff falling victim to their own injuries. In fact, Sanchez pitched in more games in 2016 than another season in his career, due in part to his brief demotion to the bullpen.

Sanchez was never going to be better than a number three starter. Now, at 33 years old, with two dismal seasons haunting his every move on the mound, he knows it is do-or-die time. People can say spring training doesn’t matter, that the games don’t count, but for Anibal Sanchez these games matter a great deal. This is his last shot at proving he can be an integral piece to the winning roster the Tigers are trying to build.

His first start of the season, on February 27, Sanchez gave up three runs on four hits, plus a walk, in a mere inning of work. Not the reset the Tigers and Sanchez were hoping for going into the new season. When asked about it, a flummoxed Sanchez could only admit, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

With $16.8 million remaining on his contract for this season, plus an inevitable $5 million buyout next year, Sanchez is an expensive reality the Tigers will have to deal with in one way or another. Ideally, when a player is carrying that much payroll, the team will want to find a use for him somewhere. The last two seasons have shown that Sanchez should not be entrusted with a starting pitcher role. Thankfully, unless one of the many other young starters on the roster — including Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd, and Buck Farmer — falls victim to an injury, there should be no need to rely on Sanchez as heavily this year.

The solution that is most obvious is to relegate him to a relief role in the bullpen. If he can demonstrate enough command to get three outs in an inning, the Tigers will be able to add an arm to their pen that could provide some additional rest for the guys like Justin Wilson and Bruce Rondon, giving the bullpen some cushion. The team will be keeping an eye on both Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe as well to see if they can earn a place in relief roles, or if they’ll continue to function as dead weights on the roster.

Regardless of how spring training shapes up for Sanchez, the Tigers are on the line for a hefty contract. The hope becomes that he can regain enough of his old skill to be an average arm, so he can prove to still be serviceable in his last season with the team. Otherwise the Tigers will be paying him almost $22 million to just stay out of the way.

Which might ultimately be the best use of him.