It’s ‘crunch time’ for Sixto Sanchez. Is there a path for him to salvage his Marlins tenure?

On the first day of spring training, Sixto Sanchez made a proclamation.

“This is the year,” Sanchez said. “I have been working a lot on myself and giving all I’ve got so I can get back.”

After three years of trials and tribulations, setback after setback, Sanchez knows he’s running out of chances. The once highly touted prospect has gone from being viewed as a potential ace for the Miami Marlins to now just trying to salvage any opportunity he can get to return to the big leagues.

With Sanchez out of minor-league options, the 25-year-old right-handed pitcher has to either make the Marlins’ Opening Day roster or start the season on the injured list in order to stay in the organization without being subjected to waivers.

In simplest terms, it’s now or never for Sanchez to show the Marlins he can still be of value to the organization.

“It is crunch time in terms of where he’s at,” Marlins pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said during the first week of camp. “ ... He’s had so many hurdles and roadblocks, and he’s just faltered. So it’s been, obviously, a tough road for him. As an organization, definitely we need to see something. He’s got to pitch.”

Sanchez took the first step in making his case on Saturday when he threw a perfect fifth inning in the Marlins’ 4-1 spring training win over the New York Mets at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. He needed 14 pitches to retire Jose Iglesias (flyout to right field), Taylor Kohlway (popout to second base) and DJ Stewart (strikeout looking).

Outside of a one-inning appearance with Double A Pensacola late last season, Saturday was Sanchez’s first appearance in a live game since March 25, 2021.

After throwing mostly offspeed and breaking pitches to begin the outing, Sanchez went on to fire a handful of fastballs toward the end, topping out at 95.3 mph.

“Last night, I was thinking about it,” Sanchez said. “I was thinking about how I was going to do. ‘How am I going to pitch?’ Everything went well, thank goodness. Many of my teammates were telling me ‘Let’s do this. You can do this.’”

Now comes the key question: If the Marlins believe he can help the team in any capacity, what is his path toward making the big-league club? Even though he has been a starter for his entire career, could a shift to the bullpen where he would only need to pitch in shorter stints, be the best way to get him involved? Or will Miami try to build him up and have him compete for a rotation spot?

Marlins manager Skip Schumaker, entering his second season with the Marlins and thus had not seen Sanchez pitch in a live game in person until Saturday, said that decision will be made in due time.

“We’re going to see how he feels tomorrow,” Schumaker said postgame Saturday. “That’s kind of the plan. See how he recovers first and then we’ll figure it out later.”

At the start of camp, Stottlemyre said the Marlins are “keeping everything open” in regards to a role for Sanchez.

“If we can get him pitching,” Stottlemyre said, “it’s a win-win for whatever role.”

Miami Marlins right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez (73) throws a pitch during the first inning of the first game of a double header against the Philadelphia Phillies at Marlins Park in Miami, Florida on Sunday, September 13, 2020. Daniel A. Varela/
Miami Marlins right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez (73) throws a pitch during the first inning of the first game of a double header against the Philadelphia Phillies at Marlins Park in Miami, Florida on Sunday, September 13, 2020. Daniel A. Varela/

The Sixto saga

At this point, the Marlins will take just about anything they can get from Sanchez.

Especially after the journey and speed bumps that have gotten Sanchez to this point.

To recap:

Sanchez was the headliner in the Marlins’ trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in February 2019, coming to Miami along with catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitcher prospect Will Stewart in exchange for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto going to Philadelphia. Sanchez immediately became the Marlins’ top prospect, with MLB Pipeline’s scouting report at the time saying he had “perhaps the best combination of electric stuff and command of any pitcher in the Minor Leagues” when healthy.

Sanchez made his MLB debut on Aug. 22, 2020, and was part of the Marlins’ rotation the rest of the season as Miami made the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened season.

He dazzled with a five-pitch mix — a four-seam fastball that averaged 98.5 mph, a sinker that averaged 96.6 mph, a cutter that averaged 89.1 mph, a changeup that averaged 89 mph and a slider that averaged 85.8 mph.

Sanchez posted a 3.46 ERA with 33 strikeouts against 11 walks in 39 innings over seven regular-season starts, then threw five shutout innings in Game 2 of the Marlins’ wild card series against the Chicago Cubs before giving up four runs on four hits and three walks in three innings in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves on Oct. 8, 2020.

“I made the statement, and I don’t think I was going out on a limb — probably the most talented stuff and feel [out of all the] starters I ever had that came to me to the big leagues at a young age,” said Stottlemyre, who coached the likes of Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez in the early stages of their careers.

But that, essentially, has been the last we’ve seen of Sanchez in a meaningful capacity.

Shoulder discomfort ahead of the 2021 season has since led two surgeries, first in 2021 to repair a capsular tear in his right shoulder and clean out the backside of the joint and then another in 2022 for right shoulder arthroscopic bursectomy.

Sanchez reported to spring training in 2023 in good spirits and in better shape, having lost about 45 pounds over the offseason. However, Sanchez’s work was limited to catch sessions and bullpens on the back fields. He pitched in extended spring training games in late April and early May before experiencing shoulder soreness that shut him down and restarted his throwing progression.

Four months after that brief shutout — and nearly three full years since his last MLB appearance — Sanchez finally took the mound again and pitched one shutout inning for the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos on Sept. 12.

“I know I didn’t feel 100 percent,” Sanchez said, “but I was very happy with the fact that I was out there.”

Right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez throws a pitch for the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Pensacola, Florida. Courtesy of Pensacola Blue Wahoos
Right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez throws a pitch for the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Pensacola, Florida. Courtesy of Pensacola Blue Wahoos

‘He can feel good about himself’

Fast forward to this spring, and Sanchez now feels close to 100 percent. He is still working on building up his velocity and still getting to a point where he is fully confident in all of his pitches.

But Saturday provided a glimpse of what could be his return.

His shoulder shimmy after big plays returned. He didn’t let a rough bullpen session in which he felt “weird” and his pitches weren’t landing where he wanted faze him before getting on the mound.

And then 14 pitches later, Sanchez walked off the mound with his head held high.

“I think the most important thing is he made it through,” said veteran catcher Curt Casali, who was behind home plate for Sanchez’s inning. “No baserunners. Early contact. A punchout at the end. He can feel good about himself. I don’t know his entire history. I’m still getting to know him, but he looked confident out there. He looked like he was having fun. He had a smile on his face. At the end of the day, that’s all you can hope for.”

Sanchez’s first pitch on Saturday to Iglesias clocked in at just 88.7 mph. He then threw three consecutive changeups, the last of which Iglesias sent to right fielder Avisail Garcia for a flyout.

Against Kohlwey, Sanchez started with a 79.4 mph curveball for Strike 1 before throwing a 92.4 mph fastball, three consecutive changeups and then two more fastballs — this time at 95.2 and 95.3 mph — with the final heater ending the at-bat with a popup.

“Once I was a little more loose,” Sanchez said, “I started getting there, 94-95, feeling confident and feeling well, too. So I believe in the near future, once I keep growing that confidence, I’m going to throw a little harder.”

Sanchez then needed three pitches to strike out Stewart and end his return outing. He started with a pair of fastballs — 94.5 and 93 mph — before freezing Stewart with a curveball for the strikeout.

“He’s worked hard to get back here,” Schumaker said. “A lot of people have been wondering when that was going to happen. To see it finally happen was special. Hopefully, he keeps trending that way.”

Sanchez called his return to the mound a “feeling of greatness.” But he also knows it’s just the latest step in the long road back. With the clock ticking, Sanchez doesn’t want that feeling to fade away.

“I’m going to continue preparing myself,” Sanchez said, “and go out there again.”