How a Jonathan Sanchez in the Pen Could Benefit the Giants On and Off the Field

Kevin O'BrienCorrespondent IJune 29, 2009

PHOENIX - JUNE 11:  Starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez #57 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the major league baseball game at Chase Field on June 11, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I’m not giving up on Jonathan Sanchez just yet. His stuff really is undeniable. He can frustrate hitters with his pitches and he has a presence on the mound that at times, looks like the makings of an ace.

Yet while he does not want to hear this, Sanchez is done as a starter. On Sunday he proved that as he retired the Brewers five, six and seven hitters all by strikeout in the ninth inning of the Giants 7-0 win over the Brewers.

But that is not a bad thing. Sanchez is a mediocre starter, a third guy in the rotation at best, whether it is on the Giants or any other team.

As a reliever though, he can be nails, not to mention the premiere left-handed option that has the makings of not only a quality set-up man, but dare I say it, a closer.

Sanchez in the ninth? It isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

I believe we have seen the ceiling on our current closer Brian Wilson. He has been a great option for the past couple of years, and has been our best closer since Robb Nen was closing out games, and coming onto the field with “Smoke on the Water” playing over the loudspeakers.

As a result, Giants fans have fawned over Wilson. However, they have not become fans of the quirky pitcher because he is a dominant closer, but rather because Giants fans have had to sit through god-awful ninth-inning men since Nen’s departure.

Matt Herges? Brad Hennessey? Armando Benitez? Those guys were as skilled in the ninth inning as Miss Teen South Carolina was with the English language at the Miss Teen USA competition last year.

Thus, while Wilson has done the job so far, in no way should he be considered the closer of the future for the Giants. He is not up there in the current class of top closers such as K-Rod from the Mets or Joe Nathan from the Twins (who could’ve been our closer if it wasn’t for Sabean’s incompetence).

Wilson has thrived on getting the bottom of the lineup out in the ninth and one or two out saves. Yet when the game gets pressure-filled, Wilson has failed more times than he has succeeded. Granted, I like Wilson for now, but the fact of the matter is, he is expendable, and should be explored in deals to help the Giants upgrade for a better offensive threat.

And with Wilson being a guy we can let go, that makes the Sanchez in relief idea more enticing.

The Tampa Bay Rays exhibited to us last year that you don’t necessarily need one guy to close out in the ninth. Manager Joe Madden showed that if you mix it up and pitch on matchups rather than just go to a single closer, you can be just as successful. The Rays last year rode a trip to the World Series with a lefty in JP Howell and a righty in Grant Balfour mixing it up in the eighth and ninth innings, depending on the matchups.

What does Sanchez have in common with them? They were both former starters who failed as starting pitchers, but excelled as relievers.

There is no denying Sanchez’s skill, but his mental concentration on the mound has been another thing. The guy is a constant roller coaster, having one or two good innings where he’s fanning the side, and other innings where he’s giving back-to-back homers.

Sanchez doesn’t have the mental makeup to be a starter. He struggles when he faces the lineup the second time around because he doesn’t make adjustments on the mound.

Howell and Balfour struggled with that as well when they were starters in Kansas City and Minnesota respectively. But they’ve embraced and excelled as relievers.

Look at Howell for example, who’s very similar to Sanchez in terms of stuff and history. Since Howell moved to the pen, he has produced seasons where he has had an ERA of 2.22 and 1.67 in 2007, and 2008 respectively. Hitters have hit under .200 in both of his seasons as a reliever as well.

And the best part of this comparison? Sanchez has a better fastball than Howell. If Howell can excel against big-time hitters from the AL East as a reliever, just imagine what Sanchez can do in the NL West as an eighth inning specialist or spot closer.

Of course, I wouldn’t throw Sanchez in as the closer right away.  Combine him with a guy like Sergio Romo, who also have very good stuff, and we could have that young, cheap, one-two closer combo that could be as effective as the Howell-Balfour duo in Tampa.

In my mind, Sanchez should explore this option, embrace it and do all he can to excel. This is not a demotion, but a massive opportunity. For him, it is a chance to reinvigorate his career in the same way Mickey Rourke did when he realized he couldn’t be a heart-throb anymore because his face got so beat up by drugs, chain smoking and boxing.

And if Sanchez pursues this, and is able to excel with a right-hander like Romo rotating in the ninth inning, we can explore what trade value we can get with Wilson. Everybody wants to deal Sanchez, but what would give us a better chance at a better hitter who can be a legitimate clean-up threat?

A spot starter with an ERA near six? Or a closer who was a former All-Star.

I guarantee you a contender like the Yankees, whose bullpen is an absolute shambles right now, would panic and overcompensate for a guy like Wilson.

Granted, we will still need to see more out of Sanchez. One outing as a reliever is just that, one inning. But if he continues this trend, and if Romo continues to improve in more seventh inning relief work, then I think we could solve the question of “who do we trade to upgrade offensively” a lot easier than we think.

And it would go through Wilson, not Sanchez as we would like to think.