PITTSBURGH -- The numbers weren't all that impressive, nor were the reports from scouts, that said Tony Sanchez struggled to connect with breaking pitches during his Arizona Fall League stint. And eyebrows were raised about the flaws that he showed as a receiver behind the plate.
But contrary to these independent reports, the Pirates insist that Sanchez's struggles this fall were largely a product of his lengthy summer layoff and are not the reason for any long-term concerns.
"I think part of it was just going out to the Fall League and trying to impress," farm director Kyle Stark said. "Tony is a guy that cares a great deal and wants to impress. I think it was more those factors than anything else."
Sanchez underwent jaw surgery in June after being hit in the face by a pitch. The impact caused two fractures, and Sanchez's jaw had to be wired shut for about a month to help it heal. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Sanchez lost 12 pounds while his jaw was wired. He wasn't able to return to action until the Pirates' fall instructional league.
At the time of the injury, Sanchez was batting .314 with a .416 on-base percentage, 17 doubles, four homers, 35 RBIs in 59 games with High Class A Bradenton. The expectation was that he would end the season in Double-A. That ascension has obviously been postponed to 2011.
To make up for missed time, Sanchez was one of seven players the organization sent to the AFL. There, he played in 18 games and hit .206 with one double and four homers. Sanchez struck out 21 times in 68 at-bats.
"I think it was more he was just rusty getting back out there," Stark said. "Actually, he stung some balls and didn't have the results and tried to do a little bit more. We were pleased with how he went about things. The results just weren't there."
There were issues on defense, too. Touted as an above-average defender when he was drafted, Sanchez needs to improve his catch-and-throw and receiving ability. The Pirates are confident that Sanchez's athleticism will help in both of those areas. Sanchez must also continue to make strides with his game-calling abilities.
Stark confirmed that Sanchez is likely to begin next season with Double-A Altoona. Assuming that's the case, it's not unreasonable to project Sanchez making his Major League debut sometime during the 2012 season. That is, of course, assuming that the deficiencies he showed this fall don't become long-term setbacks.
"We know the ingredients are there," Stark said. "It's just a matter of him doing it."
Additional Minor League news and notes
The Pirates are remaining mum on their Triple-A rotation plans for 2011. That rotation will come into better focus once the Pirates determine how much depth they have at the big-league level. Those who don't make the Pirates' rotation in Spring Training will start the year in Triple-A and will be joined by pitchers promoted from last season's Double-A rotation. Candidates include Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes.
"We'll definitely see a lot of those guys pitching in Triple-A, it's just a question of whether they'll start there," Stark said. "Sometimes it's out of their control. Some of it is going to be dependent on what we do with the big leagues."
Last month, infielder Josh Harrison completed a successful stint with the Mesa Solar Sox in the AFL. Harrison batted .330 in 22 games and finished with a .516 slugging percentage. According to Stark, Harrison is a candidate to start next season in Triple-A.
"He's a guy that's going to continue to challenge people to think that he's better than what they think," Stark said. "He went out there and played very well."
Also impressing in the AFL was outfielder Andrew Lambo, who the Pirates acquired when they dealt Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers. Lambo, 22, is still trying to shed the tainted reputation he received after being suspended 50 games for recreational drug use. He, too, is a candidate to be in Triple-A soon. He hit .274 with 23 RBIs in 28 AFL games.
"I think there's probably a lot of us that would say at 22 we probably aren't the people that we are today," Stark said. "The biggest thing for me is that he wants to be good and he wants to reach his potential both as a man and as a player. If you have someone who wants to do that, then we're confident about getting him there."
Stark said there were no notable injuries or surgeries to report in the Minor League system.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.