WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Alex Anthopoulos first fell in love with Aníbal Sánchez in December 2012, when the then-Blue Jays general manager flew to Miami to court the then-free agent pitcher. Over the course of two days, Anthopoulos met Sánchez and his wife, dined at Joe’s Stone Crab and became convinced this was a pitcher he needed on his roster.
“I was just really impressed with the person and the human being,” Anthopoulos said earlier this spring. “He was our No. 1 target in that free agent period in Toronto at that time. And then being around him, I became all that much more excited to try to sign him.”
In the end, Sánchez didn’t sign with the Blue Jays. He elected to return to the Tigers, who had acquired him from the Marlins that summer for the stretch run and then watched him post a 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts. Detroit offered the right-hander a five-year, $80 million deal, and how could he say no to that?
The Tigers were immediately rewarded for their investment when Sánchez went 14-8 with an American League-best 2.57 ERA in 2013, earning him a fourth-place finish in Cy Young Award voting. But then the gradual decline began.
Sánchez’s ERA rose to 3.43 in 2014, to 4.99 in 2015, to 5.87 in 2016 and then topped out at a gaudy 6.41 in 2017. He started giving up hits in bunches, and his home run rate skyrocketed to the point he led the league with 29 surrendered in 2015 and then bested that with 30 the following year.
His contract finally expired, Sánchez became a free agent again last winter. He didn’t end up signing until Feb. 20, with a Twins club that already opened camp the previous week and offered him a non-guaranteed, $2.5 million deal.
Only 2 1/2 weeks later, the Twins had traded for Jake Odorizzi and signed Lance Lynn. So with Sánchez suddenly expendable, they released him. Now a 34-year-old pitcher who posted a 6.41 ERA the previous season was unemployed deep into spring training. It was fair to wonder if anyone would come calling at that point.
And then someone did. Anthopoulos, who had taken over as Braves GM that winter, remembered how much he loved Sánchez five years earlier. And though the right-hander’s numbers had derailed along the way, he remained an immensely popular clubhouse presence, with peripheral stats that suggested he could still pitch effectively in the right situation.
“One thing when you look at him in Detroit, he still missed bats,” Anthopoulos said. “And he didn’t walk that many guys. He threw strikes. We felt like with better defense behind him, with changing leagues, with our game-planning ... we felt like there was some upside. There’s no question there was risk. But we definitely felt like there was some upside to work with. And that’s all you’re looking for in those situations.”
So it was that only five days after he was released by the Twins, Sánchez agreed to a minor league deal with the Braves that would pay him $1 million if he made the big league roster. That’s it.
Sánchez didn’t care about the money at that point. All he cared about was Anthopoulos’ show of faith in him when few would have done that.
“It was emotional,” the pitcher said. “I appreciated the opportunity that he gave me last year. Because it’s really hard to keep that faith in a player. It’s probably happened with another player, but I never noticed until it happened to me. I’m always going to thank him for the opportunity he gave me last year.”
The feeling is mutual, because Sánchez proceeded to resurrect his wayward career and become a critical part of Atlanta’s division-winning rotation. He produced a 2.83 ERA in 25 outings, allowed barely more than one batter to reach base per inning pitched and became a valued mentor for the club’s young starters.
“Amazing,” he said. “It was an amazing experience for me.”
Could Anthopoulos ever have seen that coming when he signed Sánchez?
“Absolutely not,” the GM said. “If we were that smart, we would’ve given him a long-term deal with guaranteed money and all that. I’d love to tell you that we were, but obviously he was released in the middle of spring training. ...
“We definitely felt there could be an uptick in performance, because of all the things we felt we were getting. We just felt he had a chance to be better. But we didn’t expect a sub-3.00 ERA and all that stuff. Being a great guy in the clubhouse and all that, that was as advertised. No surprises there.”
No matter how well or how poorly he has pitched throughout his career, Sánchez always has been adored by teammates, coaches and executives for his clubhouse presence. Even at a relatively young age, he established himself as a trusted resource for fellow pitchers.
“He was so good for me,” said Max Scherzer, who was teammates with Sánchez in Detroit from 2012-14. “He helped me develop as a pitcher, understanding how to pitch in sequence and how to change speeds. He was so good and so fun to watch as a teammate. He’s so good about sharing his thought processes with you and explaining how he pitches and how you can take things from his game. For me, he’s an unbelievable teammate, an unbelievable rotation mate to have. I feel like our other guys are going to benefit from that.”
Scherzer and Sánchez, of course, have now been reunited with the Nationals. After watching the veteran dominate them early in his career with the Marlins and then again last season with the Braves, GM Mike Rizzo decided to bring him to D.C. with a two-year contract that guarantees him $19 million and includes a $12 million club option for 2021.
Sánchez doesn’t like to think of himself as a leader - “I just want to be a really good teammate,” he said - but whatever designation he takes, he has quickly had an influence on Nationals pitchers.
“That’s what I’ve echoed to other guys: Pay attention to what makes him great,” Scherzer said. “There’s a reason why he’s 35 years old and still pitching as well as he is. Because he really knows what he’s doing. He really knows how to locate. Really knows how to read swings. To pick his brain is such a huge thing, and so many guys can learn from it.”
Sánchez leads by example, something manager Davey Martinez figured out real quick.
“I try to beat him to the ballpark, and I can’t,” Martinez said. “And I get here fairly early. He’s already on the treadmill and elliptical. He’s already getting a workout in. That’s just a testament to why he’s still pitching very well. He works, and he’s always trying to get better.”
Which begs the question: Why didn’t the Braves try harder to re-sign Sánchez over the winter?
As Anthopoulos explains it, Atlanta’s front office was reluctant to commit the multi-year contract Washington offered because of a wave of young starters about to reach the majors and fill out its rotation.
But Anthopoulos made sure Sánchez knew how happy he was for him after signing the two-year deal with the Nationals. The feeling was genuine, for both men.
“I know he said it with heart,” Sánchez said. “He showed me all the respect he had for me. I’ve got really good respect for him, too. He’s a great person and a great GM.”
The only trouble? Now Anthopoulos has to watch as one of his favorite pitchers faces his club all season during what could be an intriguing pennant race. He’ll just have to take solace in knowing he helped Sánchez resurrect his career five years after first falling in love with him.
“Obviously, you never want to see a division rival get better, but I’m so fond of him that I’m really happy for him,” Anthopoulos said. “This is one of those deals that worked out perfectly for both sides. He took a one-year deal at $1 million. He got the opportunity with us. I felt we put him in a position to have success, in a good environment with a good team. And likewise, he performed and gave us a fantastic year and was a big part of us winning a division championship.
“That’s the way those deals are supposed to work out. We got value for the year, and then he was rewarded financially at the end of it.”