Last in a four-part series
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic - When he was a boy, he pitched. That is what boys did in San Cristobal, a city west of the Dominican capital with a population the size of Lincoln, Neb., that has produced major-league arms such as Jose Rijo, Pascual Perez, Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano, and Santiago Casilla.
They know baseball in San Cristobal, where former slugger Raul Mondesi was elected mayor in 2010. Trainers inspected a young Sixto Sánchez, and they did not see a pitcher.
"They made me a shortstop because I was little," Sánchez said, through an interpreter. "I wasn't strong."
Sánchez, still slender and insistent that he is 6-foot-1, smiled. No pitcher in the Phillies system made a more shocking impression last season than Sánchez, whose fastball sits in the high 90s and pushed him to a 0.50 ERA in 54 rookie-ball innings.
Scouts from other organizations started to gossip in June about this 17-year-old and his electric right arm. At the end of July, fresh from a trip to Florida, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak volunteered an observation to some reporters.
"Sixto," he said. "Wow."
The Phillies spent $35,000 to sign him.
Sánchez is 18 now, no longer an unknown. He is years from even being considered a major-league option, and so much can happen to a young pitcher. But the Dominican is enjoying his newfound status as one of the organization's top pitching prospects. Claro, he said, when asked if he liked the attention on his right arm.
"After I grew a little bit, they gave me another opportunity to pitch," Sánchez said. "I felt at home, being back on the mound."
Sánchez did not start pitching again until he was 16. That the Phillies secured him amounts to a certain level of luck, which can be said for many international transactions. The Phillies organized a workout for a Cuban catcher at their old complex in Boca Chica and dispatched Bart Braun, a special assistant to the general manager, to watch. The team wanted the Cuban to see some live pitching to better evaluate him. Sánchez was one of the ringers.
Braun called Sal Agostinelli, the Phillies' director of international scouting. "I need some money," Agostinelli remembered Braun saying.
"He's only 18 years old," Agostinelli said last month. "He'd be one of the top five picks in the draft. A Johnny Cueto-type guy."
The Phillies' track record of identifying Latin American pitching is estimable, considering their level of investment. There were early successes such as Carlos Silva, Robinson Tejeda, Alfredo Simon, and Jean Machi; late bloomers such as Carlos Carrasco ($300,000) and Lisalverto Bonilla; and low-money revelations such as Antonio Bastardo ($17,000), Hector Neris ($17,000), and Edubray Ramos (free).
Rival scouts have said one of the strengths of the current Phillies system is the amount of projectible Latin American arms in the lower minors. Most of them throw hard. Almost all of them were signed for nominal bonuses.
Sánchez leads the pack. Franklyn Kilome ($40,000) and Adonis Medina ($70,000) are well regarded. Seranthony Dominguez ($30,000) and Jose Taveras ($5,000) impressed at single-A Lakewood last season. Mauricio Llovera ($7,500) can throw 100 m.p.h. and was a part of a dominant rotation at the Gulf Coast League. Francisco Morales ($720,000) was viewed as the best pitcher to emerge from Venezuela during last summer's signing period. He will make his professional debut in 2017.
"The guy is a flat-out monster," Agostinelli said of Morales. "If he doesn't make it, it's because he gets hurt. The guy is 94, 95 [m.p.h.]. He's 6-foot-5 and he's 16 years old with an 85-m.p.h. slider."
A little closer to the majors, the Phillies have Elniery Garcia and Ricardo Pinto, both of whom were added to the 40-man roster this winter. Miguel Nunez, who signed for $225,000, has benefitted from a shift to the bullpen.
The necessary caveat with all of the above names is that pitchers will break, especially young pitchers. Some will never reach their potential. A few could thrive. But team officials feel that the Latin American pitching pipeline has provided them with options.
The youngest arms, so far from the majors, could become trade chips in the coming years. Team president Andy MacPhail has preached a pitching-first rebuilding process; the investments made in the Latin American pitchers could result in a large return.
Sánchez could be tested in 2017 with an assignment to low-A Lakewood. He struck out 44 and walked eight in 54 innings with the Gulf Coast League Phillies. He opposed hitters two, three and four years older than he was. They hit .181 against him with four extra-base hits in 182 at-bats.
He gained fastball velocity when he arrived in America. In 2015, during his first professional work in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez's fastball sat near 92 to 93 m.p.h., said Alex Concepcion, a Phillies minor-league pitching coach.
But minor-league pitching coordinator Rafael Chaves relayed reports to Concepcion last summer from Clearwater that Sánchez was up to 99 m.p.h. Concepcion was amazed, but not surprised.
"The first time we saw this guy, we said, 'This guy has potential.' He is not afraid," Concepcion said. "He likes to throw, no worries or nothing. For me, this guy is a big leaguer."
That label is premature; Sánchez must grow. The Phillies listed him at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds before the 2016 season began. The quality of his work, Sánchez said, convinces him that he is ready to pitch in New Jersey this season.
"I did so well last year because of my hard work," Sánchez said. "I play with passion. It comes from my heart."
He comes from a large family in San Cristobal, one of eight children. Sánchez resumed school and is working toward his high school diploma while at the Phillies' academy. He graduated eighth grade last month.
For now, Sánchez is nothing more than a lottery ticket, a cheap one for a billion-dollar corporation. The stubble on his chin is uneven and frizzy. He has yet to experience the rigors of a full professional season.
An interpreter began to ask Sánchez to name some pitchers he admires, and he answered before he heard the whole question:
"He's good-looking," Sánchez said. "And he's tough."