Gaby Sanchez ready to make first-base job his own

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Gaby Sanchez is surrounded by people who want a piece of him.

To his immediate left in the Pirate City clubhouse is Travis Ishikawa. In the next row of lockers sits Chris McGuiness. Across the hall, in the "prospects locker room," is Andrew Lambo.

They are left-handed hitters who all want a piece of Sanchez. Or, at least, a piece of his action -- a big piece, against pitchers who throw right handed, as do most, which would severely curtail the playing time of Sanchez in a first-base platoon.

Sanchez says they are welcome to try. No, really welcome, because "it's not really competition because, in the end, we're all in it for the same thing -- to win."
That said, Sanchez suggests they could be wasting their time. As could Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington if he continues to track the trade and free-agent markets for a possibly higher-profile lefty hitter to pair with Sanchez.

"I know I can be an everyday guy. There is no doubt in my mind. I know I can do it," Sanchez said, trying to soothe a fan base that considers the first-base situation -- further emaciated by the departure of Garrett Jones -- the biggest emergency facing the 2014 Bucs. "I know I can go out there and produce and help the team win. I truly believe that. I'm definitely good enough to keep going out there as the everyday guy."

Pretty emphatic for a guy who, in a season and a half with the Pirates has hit about .200 versus right-handed pitchers. However, Sanchez argues, those at-bats came sporadically, usually on days he was already in the starting lineup against southpaws (against whom he hit .333 last season).

"When you're in there every day and get four at-bats, all the reps, that really helps," Sanchez said. "I feel like if I get the opportunity to go out there and play every day, I'll show what I can do."

Go ahead and argue otherwise, Sanchez and Monica Swasey dare you.

Er, Monica?

"Her husband is the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Miami," explained Sanchez, a native and resident of Miami. "Monica does her own training. A couple of other big leaguers work with her, and they told me to come by and give her a try."

Sanchez wasn't too sure. He had trained once before with Mrs. Swasey, but all he'd lost that time was pep. However, manager Clint Hurdle did send Sanchez off into the offseason asking him to get in better shape, so the first baseman hooked back up with Swasey. This time, he lost pounds and fat -- a lot of both.

"She was a lot more into conditioning before -- a lot of running and stuff -- and I felt like I was getting tired during the season," Sanchez recalled. "But I was told she had changed, was more baseball-specific, not as crazy with the whole conditioning thing. And she was phenomenal. Four times a week ... she helped out a lot, with everything you would need in baseball to be better, to prevent injuries, all those things."

Sanchez was one of the first position players to arrive in camp. The running gag for days was, "When is the rest of Gaby getting in?"

"He's shown up in a very good place," Hurdle acknowledged. "He got it done, he went to work. He got everything out of the winter that he could. He's a smart guy; he understood what he needed to do, the opportunity that is in front of him. He's done everything to put himself in the best situation to compete physically since he's been here."

Since "he's been here," Sanchez has platooned. Through no fault of his own: When Sanchez joined the Pirates at the 2012 Trade Deadline, Jones was entrenched as the lefty-hitting first baseman and was in the midst of a productive season. Jones wound up second on that team with 86 RBIs and third with 27 home runs. Sanchez fell into the platoon role.

"They already had someone in place," Sanchez said, "and, together, we made a pretty good duo, and the team was doing well."

It was a new role for Sanchez, who, in the previous two seasons, had played 310 games with the Marlins. That made him their everyday first baseman. Although always a stronger hitter against left-handers -- who doesn't put up better numbers against opposite-side throwers? -- he held his own against righties in those two seasons, hitting .256 against them, with 27 of his 38 home runs.

"Then I had two bad months (the first two months of the 2012 season with Miami), and all of a sudden I was a platoon guy when I got here," Sanchez said.

The Pirates brass' confidence in Sanchez's ability to again roll out a total game is evidenced by the fact that, despite winters-long reports that linked the Bucs with just about every available first baseman, Huntington has not yet pulled the trigger.

"We feel good about this club. We've got some guys who are deserving of opportunities," said Huntington, who included Sanchez in that group. "If they can't capitalize on that, then we begin looking elsewhere."

While it is true a club such as Pittsburgh can't lightly consign a $2.3 million-player to part-time status, also true is the perception the inactivity is a vote of confidence in Sanchez.

"I think so. We've spoken about it a bit, and they said that if they found somebody who'd help the team, they would pursue that," Sanchez said. "I'm OK with whatever my role will be. I hope that will be an everyday role -- but whatever they want from me, that's what they'll get, that's what I'll do."

Still, no promises. It is way too early for that.

"He's an honest self-evaluator," Hurdle said of Sanchez. "We continue to communicate, so he's clear on what we think. Where he takes it from there, it's up to him. Is our best first base situation a platoon or one guy? We'll see."

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