Can Sanchez Hold Off Morrison?

On their way to New York to play the Mets on Opening Day, the Marlins stopped in at Greensboro on Saturday, the home of their Single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League. It was a big deal in Greensboro and it gave the city a chance to see major league talent up close. The big attractions were stars like Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla. But just as important to the crowd was the chance to catch up with former members of both the Greensboro Bats and Greensboro Grasshoppers.

In all, eight players on the Marlins Travel Roster played minor league ball in Greensboro. Neither Josh Johnson nor Chris Volstad appeared Saturday, meaning that the biggest local star for the Marlins was 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan. The Marlins hope they will have another candidate for Rookie of the Year Award honors this year with Gaby Sanchez, who won the first base job in Spring Training.

Most people consider Logan Morrison to be the Marlins’ first baseman of the future but Sanchez gets first crack to establish himself in the majors. I got to ask some of the coaches about the two youngsters, the decision-making process and the future for both players.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez insisted that the first base job was up for grabs and that Morrison would have been the choice with a better Spring.

“(Sanchez) came into Spring Training in open competition with Logan Morrison, another Hopper,” Gonazlez said. “He won the competition. That’s not saying anything bad about Logan Morrison because he’s going to be a very good major leaguer. Gaby won that competition and is going to start the season with us. Now he’s got to produce. If it doesn’t happen, which I hope doesn’t happen, Logan Morrison is a pretty good backup plan.”

Hitting coach Jim Presley also said that it was a Spring Training decision.

“Two great young players going head-to-head,” Presley described the situation. “Obviously Gaby won that one, he hit over .400 and Morrison had a little bit of a struggle early. Gaby’s a little bit ahead of him right now but Morrison has a little bit of a bad hand from last year and I think that affected him a little bit. He’s going to be a great hitter. He’s going to be in the big leagues pretty soon and going to be there for a long time.”

Putting aside the wisdom of deciding a starting job based on 55 at-bats for Sanchez (.364/.410/.582) and 43 for Morrison (.209/.244/.326), the fact that Morrison was in line for a job after just 278 at-bats above A-ball shows how much the organization values the 22-year old.

“He stays inside the ball and has big-time juice,” Presley said of Morrison. “He hits the ball the other way so well we were trying to get him to turn on the ball in. He started doing that. He’s going to play in the big leagues, there’s no doubt about that.”

Last year, 12 of the 25 qualified first basemen in the majors hit 30 HR. Neither Sanchez nor Morrison projects with that type of power right now but Presley was unconcerned about that.

About Sanchez, Presley said, “Could he hit 20 in the big leagues? Sure. Will he hit 30? Probably not. He’s got the right approach and he’s going to hit .300 in the big leagues for you. He’s not your prototypical power hitting first baseman but he knows what he’s doing.”

The four projection systems on FanGraphs predict Sanchez to hit from between .270 and .279 this season. The big difference is playing time. Marcel gives him only 212 ABs while ZiPS projects 480. The most HR projected by any system is 15.

Presley noted that Morrison’s hand injury limited his chances to win the starting job this year.

“He was recovered from it but he didn’t get to play a lot and I think that affected him,” Presley said. “He had to take the winter off and kind of let it regroup. Guys trying to win a position, you want to see them go to Winter Ball and Gaby did that. He went to the Dominican and played and that made a difference.”

In 26 games in the DWL, Sanchez posted a .232/.333/.453 line in 95 at-bats.

Gonzalez indicated that the club has considered a plan to get both Sanchez and Morrison in the lineup at the same time.

“You could move Coghlan to second and put Morrison in left field and there you go,” Gonzalez said. “But who knows, down the road you make a few moves and that plan goes out the window.”

Bench coach Carlos Tosca agreed that if the two were to be in the same lineup, it would be Morrison as the one to switch positions.

“Mo would be more of a candidate to do that than Gaby would,” Tosca said.

While Tosca seemed doubtful of them both playing together, he did think either could be assets defensively at first base.

“Defensively they’re good first basemen. They play a little different. Gaby’s a little more of a routine type of guy while Mo is a little more fly by the seat of your pants type guy but they both have a chance to be good first basemen.”

Sanchez got off to a rough start defensively but he did deliver two hits on Opening Day. But even if he struggles offensively, expect Sanchez to get enough time to work out of any slumps.

“If you know anything about our manager,” Tosca said, “ he’s a very patient man. He’s going to give Gaby or anybody else an opportunity to show what they’re capable of doing.”

So Morrison finds himself at Triple-A New Orleans, which opens its season on Thursday. Gonzalez referenced Coghlan when asked about a potential promotion for Morrison in 2010. After putting up a .970 OPS in 25 games in New Orleans last year, Coghlan got the call to the majors in the second week of May.

The lesson for Morrison and his fantasy owners is that if he produces in Triple-A, he will get a shot. Of course, Coghlan came up to provide infield depth and because he produced he worked his way into the starting job in left field. So if Morrison does get a promotion, it does not necessarily mean that Sanchez is heading to the bench.

This year could be a make-or-break year for Sanchez, at least with the Marlins. If he does not establish himself as a starter this year, it will likely be much more difficult fending off Morrison after he has a full year in the high minors under his belt. But at the same time, fantasy owners of Sanchez should be encouraged that he will not get yanked at the first sign of trouble.

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Eno Sarris

Bravo Joura, great read.