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Freddy Sanchez: Bargain Baseman

At last -- a bright spot in the Pirates line-up

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If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. That's what my grandmother says. The tough part is that we live in Pittsburgh, and it's baseball season. But I'll give it a shot.

Jason Bay is playing like Jason Bay again. Imagine how much press he'd get if he played for the Mets, or how much Zach Duke would get on the Yankees or Red Sox. And if nobody's noticing Jason Bay, hardly anyone outside of Pittsburgh is even remotely aware that Freddy Sanchez is battling the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera for the highest batting average in the National League.

Sanchez, who has been playing third base to fill in for an injured Joe Randa, is one of the season's few bright spots. Without him, you'd have a season headed straight for the record books — in the Ninth Circle of Hell. During the last home stand, the fans were chanting "Freddy, Freddy, Freddy" with every Sanchez at-bat. And frankly, they should.

His numbers are no fluke. Next time you watch the Bucs, pay particular attention to Sanchez' quick, compact swing. It's the model of efficiency. Former Pirate Al Oliver once said, "Good pitching beats good hitting; but great hitting beats good pitching." Who knows if Sanchez can sustain this level over a long career (I'm betting yes). But right at this moment, he's hitting just great.

There are those traditionalists who were behind the off-season pick-up of Randa and those who believe Sanchez doesn't have enough of a pedigree. Still others maintain that you need power numbers from your third-baseman. OK, so Sanchez is no Mike Schmidt. But other than A-Rod, who is? Personally, I don't care if he hits only singles for the remainder of his career, so long as he keeps hitting around .350.

But it's not just Sanchez's efficient swing. Sanchez has become a better hitter in that he's a smarter hitter, fouling pitches off and having a good eye for the strike zone. And wearing down pitchers produces more than just hits for Sanchez.

Other than Sean Casey, nobody in this current Bucco line-up works the count more than Sanchez. Those two routinely wear out starting pitchers. Put it this way: In the sixth inning of a game, would you rather face St. Louis starter and Cy Young-winner Chris Carpenter — or Braden Looper, out of the bullpen? The Mets' Pedro Martinez — or Chad Bradford?

Almost nobody pitches complete games anymore. Quality teams have good starters and good closers, and middle relief is often the weak spot. The sooner you can get to that soft underbelly, the better your chances of piling on runs. Plus, Sanchez sets himself up for late-inning situations by forcing a pitcher to use his entire repertoire. It's what all the best batters do.

As if a batting average hovering around .350 weren't impressive enough, Sanchez is even better situationally. As I write this, he's 20 of 54 with 25 RBIs, and an on-base percentage of .393, with runners in scoring position. With runners in scoring position and two outs, he's even better, going 8 of 17 with 12 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .526. (I'd explain on-base percentage here, but when I took this job, I was told there would be no math.)

Of course, those numbers shouldn't be that much of a shock to the handful of folks still paying attention to the Pirates in August 2005.

What the muck-a-mucks at PNC Park should be realizing is that Sanchez brings a level of excitement the team has been seeking for a long time. And thanks to his constant chase of Miguel Cabrera for batting-average honors, the excitement builds with every at-bat.

All this at the bargain basement price of $342,000. With that amount of cash on hand, you could sign a little less than one-tenth of Joe Randa or one-seventeenth of a Jeremy Burnitz.

Sometimes you don't get what you pay for. Even if the Pirates had the money to pay a big-salary replacement at third base, they couldn't lure big-time free agents to play for a perennial loser. Which just makes Sanchez all the more valuable.

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