Pirates hope Gaby Sanchez is answer at 1B

BRADENTON, Fla. — The longer the Pittsburgh Pirates go without finding a new first baseman, the closer Gaby Sanchez gets to claiming the job.

Sanchez, though, does not want to get the spot by default. He’d prefer to earn it.

General manager Neal Huntington tried in December to lure free agent James Loney, but he wound up re-signing with the Tampa Bay Rays. Kendrys Morales is still available, but the Pirates will sign him only at a bargain rate. Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, Justin Smoak and Adam Lind have been mentioned as trade possibilities, but so far nothing has materialized.

“We’ve not made a move because we’ve got some comfort with Gaby and our internal options,” Huntington said. “But we are always looking for ways to improve our team.”

The Pirates opened spring training camp with three candidates to be their opening day first baseman: Sanchez, Andrew Lambo and Chris McGuiness.

Lambo hit 32 home runs last season in the minors, but has made just 41 career starts at first base. He’s getting a crash course in the position this spring.

“Andrew does a couple things like an outfielder in the infield,” infield coach Nick Leyva said. “We’ve got to break those bad habits.”

McGuiness was acquired at the end of December in a small trade with the Texas Rangers. He has extensive experience at first base, but also is with his fourth organization in a six-year span. McGuiness has appeared in only 10 major league games.

That leaves Sanchez.

Three years ago, Sanchez hit 19 home runs and was an All-Star with the Miami Marlins. But he fell out of favor when his production lagged. Sanchez spent part of 2012 at Triple-A before being traded to the Pirates.

Last year, the 30-year-old Sanchez platooned with Garrett Jones. In 136 games, Sanchez batted .233 with seven homers and 36 RBIs. Among first basemen with at least 200 plate appearances, Sanchez ranked ninth with a .778 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Huntington believes Sanchez has more talent than his stats have shown so far. So does Sanchez.

“I’ve always felt I could take first base and be perfect there,” Sanchez said. “It’s out of my hands. All I can do is work hard, train hard and show, ‘Hey, I am here. I definitely can help the team.’ If we get somebody else, I’ll help out however I can.”

After the Pirates were eliminated in the NL Division Series, Sanchez took off 10 days and relaxed with his family in Miami. On day 11, he began intense, daily workouts with a personal trainer.

“It was just me and one other guy for a good month before other guys started trickling in,” Sanchez said. “It was good. I wanted to get after it, get started.”

Last year’s media guide listed Sanchez’s weight as 230 pounds, but he looked and moved like he was at least 10 pounds heavier. This spring, Sanchez checked into camp at 235 pounds after losing a lot of flab and gaining muscle.

Sanchez’s trimmer body is the product of a stepped-up conditioning program. Many of the exercises were targeted for baseball-related skills — short sprints, ladder drills and workouts in a sand pit.

“It was designed to give me more explosive first steps,” Sanchez said. “That plays a big part at first base. I’m not a typical first baseman who plays closer to the line; I play off the line as much as I possibly can. I need to be quick enough to get back to the base. Maybe now I can get another step off than I could last year. Maybe I can take away one or two hits each week.”

Sanchez will make $2.3 million this season and has one year of arbitration eligibility left. This could be his final chance to show the Pirates he deserves a bigger, longer contract.

“Guys get to the point where they recognize there’s a big opportunity for them,” Huntington said. “Gaby’s got the first opportunity in camp to become a regular first baseman again.”

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