MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Kung-fu redux? Sanchez has fan in Sandoval

Kung-fu redux? Sanchez has fan in Sandoval

Kung-fu redux? Sanchez has fan in Sandoval
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Pablo Sandoval and Hector Sanchez have a lot in common. They're Venezuelans with similar body types, blessed with an uncommon ability to bash baseballs from both sides of the plate.

There are two distinct differences in the two Giants. One is a star, the other aspires to a Major League roster spot. One is a catcher who became a third baseman, the other a third baseman turned catcher.

Sandoval, 25, is a National League All-Star with a .307 Major League batting average and .857 OPS. He was a catcher who was transformed into a third baseman as he reached San Francisco, proving to be one of the game's best, with amazing quickness and athleticism for a guy carrying 240 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame.

When Sandoval looks at Sanchez, 22, with a bat in his hands, he sees a lot of himself in his young countryman.

"He does hit like me," Sandoval said. "Only he's more patient."

Sanchez, one of the Giants' prized prospects, signed at 16 and has put in five Minor League seasons, batting .295 with an .815 OPS while learning the catching trade almost from scratch.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy attaches high value to defense, especially behind the plate, and he has one of the game's best in Buster Posey on the comeback trail. But there is uncertainty as he rebounds from his fractured left ankle, how often Posey will be able to handle the stress of the most demanding position on the field.

Wanting to keep his bat in the lineup as often as possible, the Giants figure to catch Posey about four games a week and play at first a few times. That leaves three games for a backup -- or two backups.

Sanchez isn't nearly as advanced defensively as veteran Eli Whiteside, but the Venezuelan clubs line drives while Whiteside is a .218 career hitter in four big league seasons.

Sanchez, slashing bullets everywhere, has been tearing up the Cactus League. He carried a .405 batting average and .811 slugging mark into Thursday night's date with the Royals in Surprise. Sanchez owned four homers -- one more than Sandoval -- in 21 fewer at-bats, with 10 RBIs.

"He's good from both sides," Sandoval said. "He could hit [in the Major Leagues] right now. I'm not the general manager; I just play. I don't know what's going to happen with him. When you're a young guy like him, you just try to get that opportunity."

Home in Maracay, Sanchez put on the catcher's gear for the first time right before signing with the Giants in 2006. He has made consistent progress in his 319 Minor League games, erasing a respectable 34 percent of base stealers.

"It probably changed my career," said Sanchez, who is 5-11 and 235 pounds. "I think I can get to the big leagues faster as a catcher."

Summoned by the Giants as a backup in mid-July, Sanchez appeared in three games, returning the following month to collect his first big league hit. Pinch-hitting in the eighth inning against the Padres' Luke Gregerson on Aug. 23, Sanchez delivered an RBI single through the middle.

"I'm always watching the veteran catchers to learn," Sanchez said. "I've always been able to hit very good. I'm focusing on my defense. I've learned a lot in Venezuela [in its winter league] watching guys like Henry Blanco and Miguel Montero. Montero helped me with the positioning of my [glove] hand, getting me to extend it out more for a better target.

"Here in camp, I'm always watching Whiteside and Posey. We have a great pitching staff, one of the best. I want to learn as much as I can. I'm just waiting for my opportunity. My mentality is to keep working hard and do what I do to get better."

Sandoval, a big brother figure to Sanchez, is feeling good and looking forward to another big season after making his first All-Star team in 2011.

Despite missing 45 games with wrist (hamate bone) and shoulder injuries, Sandoval managed to produce 23 homers and 70 RBIs while batting .315 and slugging .552. He was 17th in the NL MVP balloting.

He was durable in 2009 and 2010, missing a combined total of 19 games while emerging as one of the game's most appealing -- and productive -- young players.

"I don't try to do too much in the spring," Sandoval said. "Everything's fine. No problems [physically]. I feel good about our team. We have some new guys who can help us with their speed, like [Angel] Pagan and [Melky] Cabrera. And it's great having Posey healthy.

"We've got a pretty good chance to be good."

Asked if he feels the Giants can reignite that dynamic chemistry that carried them to a World Series title in 2010, the endearing Kung Fu Panda grinned.

"It has to happen naturally," Sandoval said. "I hope so."

If things break right, maybe his talented young Venezuelan compadre, Sanchez, will be part of it this time.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.