The Giants tried to acquire Aaron Sanchez from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019, but he was dealt to the Houston Astros. A year later they showed up at a showcase he held as he was recovering from shoulder surgery and had conversations with Sanchez about bringing him to their alternate site and letting him try and pitch his way back to the big leagues, but it didn't work out.
When Sanchez threw another bullpen session for scouts in October, the Giants were there and once again were interested. They stayed on Sanchez all offseason, and last weekend they showed up to another bullpen session and watched as he hit 98 mph. It was "the cherry on top of what had been a pretty lengthy pursuit," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said Sunday. It also added potentially one last hurdle.
"It probably created a little bit more competition," Zaidi said, laughing, "But we were excited to see that he had that in him."
If other teams perked up after seeing the latest session, it didn't keep the Giants from finally nabbing their guy. On Sunday, after Sanchez passed a physical that was more important than most given his recent history, the Giants announced a one-year, $4 million deal with the right-hander that includes $2.5 million in performance bonuses.
The bonuses are for games started and indicate the Giants have signed a pitcher who is supremely confident in getting back to the form that made him one of the American League's breakout stars in 2016. Sanchez will earn $250,000 when he makes his 16th and 18th start and an additional $500,000 for every pair of starts after that up to 26 total.
Sanchez broke into the big leagues as a reliever in 2014 and transitioned to the rotation full-time in 2016. In the last five years he has just two seasons of more than 20 starts, but he still views himself as a guy who can take the ball every five days, and he signed with the Giants in large part because they do, too.
"They view me as I view myself, and that's all I can ask from a front office when you're dealing with negotiations like that," Sanchez said. "They see me the exact way I see myself in this game and they're giving me an opportunity to go out and show that."
Sanchez, still just 28, in many ways represents Zaidi's greatest upside play in a three-year run full of them. From 2017-19, Sanchez had a 5.29 ERA in 55 starts for the Blue Jays and Astros. Zaidi joked this offseason that it's not a prerequisite for a starter to be coming off an injury or down season for the Giants to sign him, and Sanchez has both in his recent past. But when he's right, there are few who are more electric.
The 2019 season was a rough one overall, but in his first start after the trade deadline, Sanchez threw six brilliant innings in a combined no-hitter. In 2016, he was an All-Star and finished seventh in the Cy Young Award voting. That was his first full season as a starter, and at the age of 23, he went 15-2 and led the American League with a 3.00 ERA. That version of Sanchez had a 95 mph sinker and a curveball that opponents barely touched.
"It would be hard to argue that he wasn't a top 20 starter in all of baseball, maybe better than that," manager Gabe Kapler. "And he certainly was thought of as a guy with great athleticism and stuff."
The Giants believe that version is still in there. Zaidi said he thought the recent bullpen session was the best Sanchez has thrown the ball since that 2016 season. For Sanchez, there's an easy explanation. He said 2016 is "the last time I was really healthy."
"When you're talking about the last three years for me, it's kinda been a wash," he said.
Sanchez always has had the physical skills to be a dominant starter and he's hoping that putting that package in the hands of the Giants' braintrust will lead to the kind of success he had early in his career. On a Zoom call with reporters Sunday, Sanchez repeatedly mentioned analytics and his desire to dig deeper into the numbers.
That's what they do around here now, and it's worked with similar high-upside arms like Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly.
The Giants already brought in Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood this offseason on one-year deals, and Sanchez rounds out the rotation. He plans to be a big part of it all year long. He's betting a couple million bucks that he will be. Asked about his confidence level, Sanchez pointed out that he was banged up in 2019 and still made it through 27 starts.
"I've been around, I know what it takes to perform through 162 games," he said. "Now it's about getting there and doing it again. For me, I've got the blueprint on how to get there. Now it's just about making sure I get there."