Gaby Sanchez ready to prove he's all right at first base for Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. — What if the answer to the Pirates' most pressing question this spring — who's on first? — was there all along?

All of the offseason focus centered around how the Pirates might upgrade first base. The club parted with Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones. The Pirates were not willing to go to a third year with free-agent first baseman James Loney and have not yet been willing to meet the demands for potential trade targets like Ike Davis, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Mitch Moreland.

So much attention has been centered around left-handed first basemen because of Gaby Sanchez's platoon splits. Sanchez has crushed left-handed pitching the past two seasons — .987 OPS in 2013 vs. lefties — but his bat has played like that of a utility infielder against right-handed pitching (.619 OPS in 2013 vs. right-handers).

Sanchez and the Pirates believe he can be much more competitive against right-handed pitching if he faces right-handers on a consistent basis. They believe he can be an everyday player, particularly if Andrew Lambo's struggles in March carry over into April.

“I know that I can do it. I have done it before. I have hit right-handers,” Sanchez said. “It's just something going out there and getting the reps.”

There might be something to Sanchez's hypothesis on why he has struggled against right-handed pitching the past two seasons.

While receiving regular playing time with the Marlins in 2010 and 2011, Sanchez produced back-to-back seasons of identical OPS numbers against right-handed pitching (.742). Sanchez said being a platoon player negatively impacts your ability against same-arm pitchers, and his number against right-handers have declined while being platooned the past two seasons.

“I don't think players lose skills (in a platoon), but you still have to train your body, you still have to train your swing,” Sanchez. “It's tough when you're in a platoon role and all you're doing is facing lefties, and then in that eighth and ninth inning … you are facing your one righty every third day. It's not an easy thing against a guy who is throwing 97 mph in the eighth and ninth inning.

“You're not seeing the arm angle. You're not seeing the arm action on a daily basis. It's tough.”

To try to prepare for the elite velocity he might see late in games last season, Sanchez began using the batting cages in the middle of games and cranked up the velocity. And Sanchez actually was better against right-handed relievers last season than he was against right-handed starters.

Sanchez made only 30 starts against right-handed pitching last season in which he received multiple plate appearances. In those 81 plate appearances, he hit .178 with a .259 on-base percentage.

Why does Pirates manager Clint Hurdle have confidence Sanchez can improve against right-handed pitching?

“The track record. … His first two years in the major leagues his numbers were competitive,” Hurdle said. “You get out of a role, or you fall out of role … there's no regularity. It's a challenge. We feel, with consistent work, the numbers would be closer together, (and) there wouldn't be the separation we saw the last two seasons.”

The Pirates' front office also believes Sanchez can improve against right-handed pitching.

“Gaby is in that competition to become the regular first baseman and to get the majority of at bats there,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “If we find a left-handed complement for him that we feel makes (first base) better, then we go in that direction. We are still working through that process. It may be something that evolves once we get into the season. We have a comfort that Gaby can do a nice job against right-handed pitching.”

And he just might get that chance.

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