It has been four years since his last day on a major-league mound, five years since a disastrous stay in Kansas City, and nearly eight since the most glorious night of his career, and yet Jonathan Sanchez will not quit.
He cannot do it, he says. The fire still burns. The hankering for competition lingers. The dream lives on.
On good days, his fastball can still hums in the mid 90s. In those moments, he can still feel like the pitcher that twirled a no-hitter and started in the World Series and provided volts of electricity from his left arm. So here is he is, standing inside the Royals clubhouse on a morning in late February, battling for a spot in the club’s bullpen, his slender frame a most unlikely figure in a room of All-Stars and prospects, veterans and dreamers.
“I’ll never give up,” Sanchez says. “You just want to keep playing until God says you’re done.”
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Sanchez is 34 years old now, five years removed from a brief, forgettable stint with the Royals in 2012. His last major-league appearance came as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 29, 2013. He posted 11.85 ERA in 13 2/3 innings that season before being released in early May.
In the years since, he has had stints with the Dodgers, Cubs and Reds. His career has often languished on life support. In 2014, he didn’t pitch at a level higher than Class AAA. In 2015 and 2016, he was out of affiliated baseball altogether. After a three-year break, it seemed unlikely he would ever pitch in the big leagues again.
The Royals did not care. As much as any club in baseball, the club’s front office recognizes the possible value in reclamation projects. There is little risk and high reward in minor-league contract and an invitation to spring training. Hit on Ryan Madson, as the club did in 2015, and the investments pay for themselves.
“I know that these types of deals can turn into something,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
So after witnessing the success stories of Madson and Joe Blanton in 2015 — and to a lesser degree, Chien-Ming Wang last season — the team went searching again in the offseason. The front office found Sanchez last fall, pitching in the Roberto Clemente Baseball League in Puerto Rico. Gene Watson, the club’s director of professional scouting, saw Sanchez throw in person. His fastball touched 95 mph.
“It’s low-risk, high-reward,” Yost said. “Those are the types of things that I love. Let’s give them a shot.”
Sanchez is taking his shot alongside a slew of other veterans, including Brandon League, Bobby Parnell and Al Alburquerque. But yes, Sanchez’s return to the Royals seems more improbable than the others. For it was here that his career first seemed to careen off the rails.
It began in the months before the 2012 season. In desperate need of starting pitching, the Royals traded outfielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for Sanchez and left-hander Ryan Verdugo.
Sanchez was coming off a mediocre season in San Francisco. He posted a 4.26 ERA in 19 starts. But he was just two years removed from helping the Giants win the 2010 World Series and three years away from the best night of his career — a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on July 10, 2009. So the Royals rolled the dice.
While Cabrera would go on to have a terrific first half — before a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs — Sanchez would crater. He posted a 7.76 ERA and issued 44 walks in 12 starts before being sent to Colorado in exchange for right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.
For Kansas City, the second Sanchez trade would provide a needed salve. Guthrie transformed into an often-reliable innings eater, helping the club to the World Series in 2014. Sanchez would be out of the big leagues within a year.
“I don’t worry about the past,” Sanchez said. “I don’t worry about what happened in the past. I just move forward to 2017.”
In his first weeks back in Royals camp, Sanchez says he recognized more former teammates than he expected. In some ways, he says, it feels like he never left. It’s a funny thing to say after nearly five years away, but a large part the Royals’ championship core was already in place in 2012. Sanchez played with most of them.
“They were here,” Sanchez said. “And when I got here, I felt like I was here since then. I didn’t feel like I was new here. You feel like you’re at home.”
For Sanchez, the familiarity has bred a degree of comfort. But in a crowded bullpen competition, it guarantees little. To make a case for the 25-man roster, Sanchez will likely have to offer consistency and promise over the next three weeks. After a scoreless appearance in his spring debut, he allowed an earned run in an inning of work against the Cubs on Wednesday.
In the early weeks of camp, he has displayed improved command from his first time in Kansas City, issuing just one walk while striking out three. Sanchez offers a simple explanation for the progress. He no longer aims for the corners.
“My ball moves a lot,” he said. “So I just let it go. Throw it down the middle and let it move.”
For Sanchez and the other reclamation projects in camp, the odds remain long. But after nearly four years away from the major leagues, Sanchez just wants another shot.
“This is a dream,” he said. “This is a dream since you’re a little kid. You want to play baseball and be in the big leagues.”