Back in the 1920s and 30s, the Philadelphia Phillies served the role the Miami Marlins do now, that of finishing school for the rest of the major leagues. They would bring a player up, let him learn how to do whatever it was in the major leagues, and then swap him to the highest bidder. In the 1950s, the Kansas City A's took over that role, though they tended to limit their largesse to the New York Yankees. Hey, Bronx guys: down an outfielder? We think this Roger Maris fellah is pretty good. Please, take him -- you can use him more than we can. That's what teams that aren't serious do -- take players who for any other organization would be key men, building blocks to a pennant, and they shuffle them away.
Right-hander Anibal Sanchez is not a future Hall of Famer, and probably won't ever win a Cy Young award or even make more than an All-Star team or two. He doesn't throw 95 mph, he throws 91-92. He's your run-of-the-mill, solid big-league pitcher currently working at the peak of his powers. In short, he is an asset, the kind of player any team would covet, a nice guy to have at any time, but particularly in a season in which your legit Cy Young guy (Justin Verlander, say) is maybe on the fritz.
On Friday evening, he took a no-hitter through eight and one-third innings against the Minnesota Twins, a team that is not exactly listing Murderer's Row each night, but does possess one superhuman ballplayer in three-time batting champion Joe Mauer. It was Mauer ended the bid with a line-drive single up the middle. Sanchez had struck him out in two of his three previous at-bats during the game, and also kept Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau, and Oswaldo Arcia (the next tier down) to a combined 0-for-11 with five strikeouts.
Less than a year ago, Sanchez was property of the Marlins. He was on the verge of reaching free agency, and despite his new ballpark, Jeff Loria wasn't going to pony up to re-sign him -- if Sanchez would even have been willing to stay. They could have gambled, held on, offered arbitration, accepted the draft pick if Sanchez went elsewhere, but that's not the way they play it in Florida, so the pitcher took the same route Miguel Cabrera did roughly five years earlier, taking the trade train to Detroit.
In return for Sanchez, former All-Star second baseman Omar Infante (currently hitting .321/.353/.438), and their competitive balance "A" pick (a new post-first-round pick that is tradeable) the Marlins picked up two players: catcher Rob Brantly, right-hander Jacob Turner, a former first-round pick, and the Tigers' Competitive Balance "B" pick (the 73rd-overall pick in the draft). Brantly looked like a solid player during his 31 games in the majors last year, though he was probably hitting over his head -- this year his throwing has been better and his hitting a lot worse. Parker pitched well for the Marlins last year, but is currently taking his lumps in the Pacific Coast League. At 22, he has time to figure things out, though his relatively low strikeout rate is troubling. As for the draft choice, who knows? Should he ever be worth any money, or should Brantly, or Turner, you know he'll be wearing a different uniform faster than you say, "Bud Selig slept here."
Sanchez has been the Tigers' best starter to this point of the season. Getting away from the Marlins, which has coincided with the first period of sustained health that he's had in his career, seems to have liberated him to find his inner ace. After a few scary outings his first few times out with the Tigers, he settled in, posting a 2.15 ERA in his final eight starts. Add in his splendid postseason work and his 10 starts this year and you get 139 innings with a 2.20 ERA, along with 115 hits allowed, 30 walks (1.9 per nine innings), and 142 strikeouts.
Sanchez served notice of his improved capabilities back on April 26, when he whiffed 17 Atlanta Braves in eight shutout innings. He's putting together quite a campaign, and he's been doing it for long enough that it's something we can anticipate more of. In this, Sanchez's story is reminiscent of that of Yankees 1930s right-hander Red Ruffing. Pitching for the Red Sox during the lowest point in franchise history, Ruffing was miserable. Traded to the Yankees, supported by a strong offense, solid defense, quality coaching, and high expectations, he pitched his way into the Hall of Fame.
Note that tonight's near-no-hitter came as the follow-up to his worst start of the season -- 2.2 innings, nine hits, six runs, and a ticket to the showers -- even the good ones are going to have their off-days, particularly when he's pitching in front of the Tigers' defense.
Of course, the Tigers' defense is better than the Marlins' defense, and as for the Tigers' offense, well, they do have Murderer's Row going. The Marlins have Victim's Row, a series of unknown stiffs going unclaimed at the municipal morgue before heading for a pauper's grave. It doesn't matter, though -- Sanchez is no longer a Marlin. They're not in the picture, not part of the story -- he used to be one of them, but he's with the pros now.