Sanchez is last left from Abreu trade
Catcher turned pitcher impressing front office with makeover
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The plan had stalled and changes needed to be made.
Pat Gillick had observed the Phillies for a few months as the team's new general manager when he traded Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees on July 30, 2006, for left-hander Matt Smith, shortstop C.J. Henry, right-hander Carlos Monasterios and catcher Jesus Sanchez. Philadelphia was 47-54 (.465) and 14 games out of first place in the National League East, and while Abreu had been an All-Star, the team had never reached the postseason with him.
So Gillick cleared a couple roster spots, which started a fire sale that included David Bell, Rheal Cormier, Ryan Franklin and Sal Fasano. He also cleared a ton of salary. Abreu made $13.5 million in 2006, $16.5 million in '07 and had a $16 million club option with a $2 million buyout in '08. Lidle made $3.3 million.
The trade allowed the Phillies to play Shane Victorino in right field the remainder of the season, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to assert themselves in the clubhouse, and indirectly sign Utley and Brett Myers to contract extensions in the offseason.
"It came out all right," Gillick said recently at Bright House Field. "I'm happy with it."
The Phillies mostly got what they wanted.
But Sanchez is the only remaining player from the trade. Smith and Henry are out of baseball. Smith had elbow problems. Henry is playing college basketball for Kansas. And the Mets selected Monasterios with the seventh pick in December's Rule 5 Draft.
Sanchez, 22, looked like a lost cause, too. He had hit just .220 in parts of three seasons, and was hitting just .186 in 35 games for Class A Lakewood in 2008 when former Minor League field coordinator Bill Dancy pulled him aside and told him the club wanted to make him a pitcher.
"I was struggling with the bat," Sanchez said. "I couldn't hit. I was like, 'I've got to hit. I've got to hit. I'm not going to make the big leagues if I can't hit.' I was working every day, but it never showed up."
Sanchez left Lakewood for instructional league in Clearwater to learn how to pitch. He returned to Clearwater the following March for Spring Training and impressed.
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"From the very first outing of Spring Training, there was no question in any of our minds that he was a pitcher and that this conversion was going to work," assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said. "And he had an outstanding season for his first year."
The Phillies just might get some talent in return for Abreu after all.
In his first season as a pitcher in 2009, Sanchez, who throws a fastball, curveball and changeup, went 10-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 26 games for Lakewood. He impressed the Phillies enough that they protected him from the Rule 5 Draft by placing him on the 40-man roster.
"It has been our experience that usually when you convert a player, that the players who pick up and can handle that conversion very quickly are the ones that end up succeeding," LaMar said. "For what Jesus did in just his first full year of pitching speaks volumes of how quickly he picks things up."
It wasn't all easy.
In his Lakewood debut last season, Sanchez lasted just two-thirds of an inning. He allowed one hit, three runs, three walks, one hit batter and one wild pitch and struck out two.
He got a lot better from there.
"I was surprised," Sanchez said. "I was catching for four years, and overnight they tell me that I'm going to pitch. But I think you've got to take every opportunity in this business. You do your best and see what happens. It's worked pretty well for me. I thought it was going to be harder, but changing positions isn't easy. I pitched a couple times when I was little, but that was the thing that scared me. I had never done it before. It's been OK. I've been learning every day and I try to practice everything they tell me."
Fans wondered why the Phillies didn't get a greater haul for Abreu and Lidle. Abreu was one of the top offensive outfielders in the game, and Lidle added depth to New York's rotation. But Gillick said that Abreu had a complete no-trade clause, which meant he controlled his destiny. Gillick recalled the Mets also were interested in Abreu, who also might have accepted trades to the Cubs, White Sox and Angels.
But Abreu basically had the Phillies over a barrel, and it seemed to be Yankees or bust.
In fact, the Phillies had to pay Abreu $1.5 million just to waive his no-trade clause.
"It certainly limits your market, and usually when a club knows that you're talking to them in a serious manner, they probably know they're one of one, or one of two that the player will accept a trade to," Gillick said. "So they've got you."
"That's basically how all those big contracts work," said Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who was Gillick's assistant at the time. "The more money you take back, probably the higher level of talent you could get. The Yankees were willing to take on the contract and give us some guys that we felt were higher risk. You didn't know what was going to happen with Monasterios. You didn't know what was going to happen with C.J. Henry. You had Smith, who made an immediate impact for us. He pitched quite well, but he had some elbow issues.
"And then Sanchez we thought was a catch-and-throw guy, but we weren't sure if he was going to develop as a hitter. We thought he had a chance to be a backup catcher in the big leagues at the time. Again, when you're talking about lower-level prospects with higher ceilings, there are risks. For the most part, those guys didn't really pan out."
But right now, they've got Sanchez, who threw live batting practice Friday at the Carpenter Complex.
"He's opened up some eyes, and you pull for him because he's got outstanding makeup, just a fine young man and a great worker," LaMar said. "He comes out every day trying to get better. He will tell us whether he's a starting pitcher or a reliever, but he will start in 2010."
Sanchez seems to look forward to the challenge as the only man left standing after the Abreu trade, and as a catcher turned pitcher.
"Oh, yeah, I'm the only one here, so I better do good," Sanchez said with a smile.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.