1-29-22 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
It’s that time of year again, when each of the major sites start to release their Top 100 Prospect lists; soon to be followed by every team’s Top 30 or so Minor League players for the upcoming season. As they do, fans will voice their positive and negative reactions as to where a particular player sits; much like many already did when Quinn Priester was ranked at 88 according to Baseball America, after coming in at 62 during the mid-season rankings back in July.
Once these initial reactions eventually die down, the predictions as to how a player should perform in 2022 and when they can be expected to reach the Majors will quickly follow; using the ETA given by the respective sites as a guide. That is unless they really like the prospect, in which case the timeline is often sped up.
It’s the same thing year in and year out. An endless cycle of emotions and projections, with the majority of the later failing to fully materialize.
For example, back in 2018 Lolo Sanchez-who at the time was set to start his 19 year-old season-was ranked as the Pirates #10 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline, as well as being #7 on Fangraphs. In that moment, expectations for Lolo couldn’t be higher.
Originally signed by Pittsburgh on July 2, 2015 for $450,000- the largest bonus given by the Pirates during this particular International Period-Sanchez started his professional career the following year by slashing .235/.359/.275 with 24 walks to 18 walks across 190 plate appearances in the DSL.
In spite of these underwhelming numbers he would earn a promotion to the Gulf Coast League-now the FCL-in 2017; where he responded by batting .284 with an .776 OPS, 4 homers and 21 walks to 19 Ks, all while playing playing a solid centerfield thanks in part to his 60 grade speed and above average-55 grade-arm. Hence the favorable prospect rankings, and an Estimated Time of Arrival at PNC of 2021.
Once again Sanchez would be moved up the ranks, landing at Low-A West Virginia to start 2018; a placement that was viewed as extremely aggressive by many experts. Unfortunately for him, this second advanced assignment in as many years was not nearly as successful. On the season Sanchez regularly struggled with his approach at the plate; doubling his strikeout rate from the previous year-8.1% to 16.3%. At the same time his numbers quickly fell in almost every other major and analytically driven category. His slugging tumbled from .417 to .328, his ISO plunged nearly 50 points to .085 and his wRC+ dropped below the league average; landing at 90, when it had been 123 in 2017.
Although there was one silver lining in all of this. At only 19, Sanchez had been 2.4 years younger than the average Low-A player. This meant that the choice to repeat the level at 20 still left him a full 1.5 years younger, with full season of experience under his belt.
In the end this decision paid off as he slashed .301/.377/.451 with 20 extra base hits, a .150 ISO and a 142 wRC+ with the newly affiliated Greensboro Grasshoppers; earning a promotion to the Marauders in High-A toward the end of June. For the most part this reward felt more like a punishment, at least as far as the stat sheet was concerned. In 195 plate appearances Sanchez hit a meager .196 with career lows in pretty much every category; from a .570 OPS to a 77 wRC+.
Due to this inauspicious showing after his mid-season bump to Bradenton, Sanchez found himself as the only Top 30 Prospect on MLB Pipeline-that was in their first year of eligibility-who was wasn’t protected from the Rule 5 Draft.
Then the pandemic hit. For young men such as Lolo a year of development was clearly lost, which I alway felt could be more detrimental to him because of the way the previous season ended. However, at that point it was more of a waiting game to see how Sanchez and the other Pirates Prospects would emerge on the other side.
Coming into 2021 there were a few aspects of Lolo’s development and/or approach to the game that were becoming abundantly clear. First of all, he struggled with a promotion, but also showed he could be successful the second go-around. Next was that he had the ability to utilize his speed on the base paths, although his judgement was not alway the best concerning when to take advantage of it. In four professional seasons Sanchez had stolen a total of 81 bases, yet he was caught 43 times. Finally, the young man was a pull hitter. Outside of his first season in the DL-where the breakdown was 42.6% Pull/27% Center/30.5% Oppo-Sanchez had made a habit of pulling the ball at a rate between 54.3% and 57.5%; while also pounding the ball into the ground approximately 40 to 50% of the time.
When the season eventually started after a month delay, it would be a return to Greensboro-the site of his successful first half in 2019-and a repeat of High-A-the level he had struggled at that same year.
As has become second nature when looking at all Grasshopper players from this past season, the first thing I focus on is the home-road splits because of the bandbox known as First National Bank Field. Surprisingly, for Lolo it wasn’t nearly as friendly as it had been for several other players. In 220 plate appearances at home Sanchez slashed .225/.361/.393 with 8 homers, versus a .301/.391/.507 slash-line with 10 homers in 239 plate appearances on the road.
On the whole he added power with .190 ISO, showed more patience at the plate as evidenced by an increased walk rate-up over 10% for the first time since 2016-and improved his overall launch angle by dropping his ground ball rate to 33.9%. Nevertheless, a couple things that didn’t change were his decision making on the bases-stealing 30, while being caught 9-and his Pull Rate of 56.2%. A pattern that has continued even in his off-season training.
So, what changed? And, what can fans expect from Lolo during the upcoming Minor League Season? Well, after almost four years of tinkering with his swing, Sanchez was finally able to combine the skills of keeping his hands low and getting the bat through the zone in order to properly play to his strength of pulling the ball. In the end the contact was solid, and he added the necessary loft that his swing had been consistently lacking.
Now, as far as expectations go I am actually a little concerned because Lolo is probably due for another promotion to Double-A Altoona; and, if history has taught us anything, he usually struggles initially in these scenarios. Only this time I am not sure if he, or the Pirates can afford a second chance with the Curve in 2023. For one thing, his Minor League Free Agency is about to kick in, and for another, he’s already been left unprotected in the Major League Portion of the Rule 5 Draft three years straight; which is to say, it’s almost now or never at this point. Plus, regardless of how you try to spin it, 2021 is most definitely in the rear view mirror; with no way of going back.