Anibal Sanchez: The Race-Changer

A few weeks ago, we looked at a few of the arms who might be available for mid-season trades, and it wasn’t exactly a list of Cy Young candidates. Jason Marquis, Kevin Slowey, Jeremy Guthrie… useful pitchers all, but not exactly the kind of sexy addition that a team looking to make a big time push for the World Series is dreaming of. Looking around the league, there just didn’t seem to be any high quality arms with front-line starter upside who would be on the market this summer.

But then, June happened to the Marlins. After looking like a surprising contender in April and May, they’ve gone 3-22 in June, changed managers, and are now 14 1/2 games behind the first place Phillies. Even their Wild Card hopes seem long gone, as they stand 10 games back of the Braves and would have to leapfrog over 10 teams to claim the consolation playoff berth. The 2011 Marlins are going to be also-rans, and that puts a pitcher on the market who could change a lot of playoff races.

While Josh Johnson has garnered the headlines, his rotation mate Anibal Sanchez has quietly matured into a terrific pitcher in his own right. His career has been cut short by numerous injuries, but as we noted last August, Sanchez’s stuff really began to round back into form last summer. His velocity trended up all summer, and over the last 12 months, he’s settled in as a guy whose fastball averages close to 92 with a hard slider and a strong diving changeup.

The return of Sanchez’s premium stuff has been reflected in his performance as well. Over the last 365 days, Sanchez has been one of the best pitchers in the National League. Improved stuff and elite performance from a 27-year-old under team control for 2012? Now that’s the kind of player that a team would be willing to sell the farm for.

Sanchez is especially intriguing because any team acquiring him in the next month will be on the hook for only about $2 million in salary over the rest of the season, so the bidding could be opened up beyond the usual suspects. Yes, the Yankees would almost certainly make a strong bid, but the Marlins would be able to market Sanchez as a guy who could change nearly every pennant race in baseball.

The Reds could turn their focus to Sanchez and put together a strong offer without having to take on an encumbering salary that might bust their budget. The Indians could try to keep their surprising run going and bolster their 2012 rotation at the same time. The Rockies are on the hunt for a starting pitcher and Sanchez’s stuff would play well at altitude. The Rangers could bolster their rotation for the second consecutive summer, only this time by acquiring a guy who wouldn’t be leaving several months later.

Sanchez would be in strong demand and instantly become the jewel of the trade market (assuming the Mets decide to keep Jose Reyes), and, in most cases, the best guy on the market every summer commands a strong premium. The drop-off from Sanchez to the next best pitcher that a team could acquire is pretty staggering, and the Marlins could legitimately make the case that they were the holders of the only front-line starter on the market, and that they didn’t have to trade him since they had him under team control for next year as well.

But assuming that the Marlins won’t sign Sanchez long-term, they should trade him this summer. His strong season has lined up for a big paycheck in arbitration this winter, so any hope of getting him to sign a crazy below market deal like Johnson agreed to is out the window. If he hits free agency in 16 months, he’s going to get a deal that would make Jeffrey Loria cry (which is a thing we are in favor of, by the way). They missed their window to keep him in Miami long term, so now the question is when they should trade him, not if.

With no other good pitchers on the market and Sanchez’s salary making him an option for nearly every contender in baseball, they’ll never get more for him than they will now. Sanchez should command more than Cliff Lee did last summer thanks to the extra year of team control. The Marlins could land multiple top prospects and useful Major League players for him, as there are several teams who have the cache of prospects to make a really strong offer and the incentive to do so.

Larry Beinfest may just decide one of the playoff races this summer. He’s going to have his pick of places to send Sanchez to, and given his strong leverage, he’s in position to engineer a true blockbuster deal. The boring summer trade deadline may have just gotten interesting.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

Just like Larry Bernandez!