Anibal Sanchez delivers a pitch during a start for the Mud Hens on Tuesday night at Fifth Third Field. Sanchez allowed three runs on three hits, struck out three, and walked two during two innings. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
Anibal Sanchez could have told the Tigers to take their proposal and shove it.
A demotion to Toledo?
Any baseball player with at least five years in the major leagues can refuse an assignment to the minors, and Sanchez — no matter how much his right arm has faded — is not any guy. As a former American League ERA champion with a contract fatter than the domestic product of some nations, the 33-year-old former starter realistically left a Tigers franchise ready to move on with one option: Cut a big severance check and wish Sanchez well.
Nobody voluntarily trades the Ritz for the Ramada, the chartered flights for bus rides, the five-star life in Detroit for the workaday grind of the minors.
Then the funniest thing happened.
Sanchez accepted an assignment to Toledo.
Not a fly-by-night rehab assignment. You know, the kind in which a player of his stature signs a few autographs and picks up the tab on a steak and ribs from Outback for a steak and ribs meal, then commutes back and forth from Detroit.
No, a full-scale ride-the-bus assignment.
“He’s a Toledo Mud Hen,” manager Mike Rojas said.
Good for him.
Instead of taking the money and walking, there he was Tuesday night taking the ball and pitching in the Hens’ 6-2 loss to the Norfolk Tides.
It did not go as planned, and you couldn’t help but wonder what ran through his mind as he got walloped the same in front of a few thousand fans at Fifth Third Field as he did in the big leagues.
And, in fairness, we only could wonder.
Sanchez was curiously not available to reporters afterward. If I had to guess, he was less than amused, his start encapsulating the arc of his tenure in Detroit.
Brilliant, then boom.
Sanchez struck out the side on 13 pitches in the first inning, just the sort of tantalizing flash that leaves the Tigers in fear of cutting loose a pitcher they still owe the remaining $21.8 million on a five-year, $80 million deal.
“I wasn't sure we were going to hit him,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said.
Then, well, boom. With a fastball ranging from 88 to 91 mph and flaky command, a whip-lashed Sanchez hung a pair of sliders that got blistered out of the park and allowed three runs over two-plus innings. He left the mound to a smattering of golf claps.
Welcome to Toledo.
Yet, to his great credit, Sanchez is intent on seeing this through. After a distressed spring as a mop-up man in the Tigers' bullpen, he came to town in an eleventh-hour effort to become a starter again.
He threw 45 pitches Tuesday and plans to increase his count by 15 tosses each start. The idea in Sanchez’s indefinite stay here is to recapture a mere shred of his old form.
“You've got to take our hat off to him,” Rojas said. “He accepted the role coming down here coming to be a starter. He’s a pro. He knows he hasn't been succeeding. and he wants to succeed. Hopefully, it continues to get better.”
For all of the scorn Sanchez has endured, he deserves only praise here. He’s regarded among the class guys in the Tigers’ clubhouse, and if the measure of a man is best gauged at his worst, he is proving it again. Rojas said he could not recall a player of Sanchez’s credentials accepting a similar demotion. Neither could we.
Again, he could have declined the assignment, forced the big club’s hand, and counted his money. Or started anew elsewhere on Detroit’s dime. If the Tigers released Sanchez, they owed him the remainder of his $16.8 million salary this year and a $5 million buyout for 2018.
“It’s admirable in a day and age when a lot of players wouldn’t do [what Sanchez did],” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was willing to go to the minor leagues for the betterment of himself and of the team. It was very unselfish of him.”
Sanchez is betting on himself, proving once more the hardest crossroads for any elite athlete is deciding when it is time. Especially if your arm once packed such brilliance.
It was only in 2013 that he seemed like a bargain, wielding the kind of wicked repertory and command that confounded the best lineups in baseball. He struck out a franchise-record 17 hitters one charmed spring night and led the league with a 2.57 ERA.
Sanchez labored through an injury-filled 2014, then fell off the edge. His ERA rose from 4.99 in 2015 to 5.87 last year to too high to compute this season. In 21 innings, he has allowed 21 runs on 34 hits while walking nine. It reached the depths where one overzealous Tigers fan launched an online fundraiser to pay for Sanchez’s $5 million buyout. The site has so far raised $67.
The Tigers had no choice but to approach Sanchez about the assignment to Toledo. And while Ausmus did not say the club would have released Sanchez if he had declined, you could read between the foul lines.
Sanchez admirably put his pride above his wallet.