Sixto Sanchez trotted out of the first-base bullpen at Blue Wahoos Stadium on Tuesday, ready for a moment three years in the making.
Finally, the once highly touted prospect was back pitching in a live game.
Sanchez worked around a pair of two-out baserunners for a scoreless inning, including a pair of strikeouts, for the Double A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
It was only one inning, only five batters, only 18 pitches — and his velocity wasn’t fully there, with none of his pitches topping 90 mph — but the outing marked a long-awaited milestone for the former top prospect whose young career has been derailed by recurring shoulder issues.
And it provides life to the fact that maybe, just maybe, Sanchez may still have a place in the Marlins’ future.
Recapping the Sixto Sanchez saga
Sanchez’s story, journey and speed bumps since joining the Marlins organization has been told and rehashed over the past few years.
He 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 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.
And that, essentially, has been the last we’ve seen of Sanchez.
He pitched in three spring training games in 2021 before being sidelined with shoulder discomfort after throwing a simulated game in Jacksonville. He has since undergone two surgeries on the right shoulder, 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. Both operations were performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache.
Sanchez reported to spring training this year in good spirits and in better shape. He had lost about 45 pounds over the offseason and had thrown a handful of bullpens albeit not at full speed. His goal was to get back into game action after two lost years.
“It was very, very hard for me the last couple of years,” Sanchez said ahead of spring training. “You watch the games, you see your teammates playing and you really want to be there. The frustration was really high and it wasn’t easy for me to maintain a positive attitude. It was really hard because it was just setback after setback and just trying to come back and trying to maintain that positive energy. It was very difficult, but thank goodness we’re where we are right now and looking forward.”
Sanchez didn’t pitch in spring training games, his work limited to catch sessions and bullpens on the back fields and getting to the point where he would face live hitters. 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 that last MLB appearance — Sanchez finally took the mound again.
Sanchez on Tuesday got two quick outs to begin his outing against the Mississippi Braves, the Double A affiliate for the Atlanta Braves, getting Cody Milligan to ground out to shortstop and striking out Cal Conley on four pitches. Sanchez then walked Luke Waddell on four pitches and gave up a single to Drake Baldwin before striking out Jesse Franklin V to strand the two runners and cap his outing.
Decisions to be made
While nothing is guaranteed, Sanchez at least is salvaging what little chances are left of providing value to the Marlins if he is able to stay healthy and show he can pitch at a high level.
Sanchez is out of minor-league options after this season, so starting in 2024, the only way he can remain on a team’s 40-man roster — the Marlins’ or otherwise — is to either be on the MLB roster or on the MLB injured list.
Marlins general manager Kim Ng on two different occasions this season said Sanchez was still part of the organization’s long-term plans.