Sixto grinds through rehab in quest to return

'Tough to forget' talent focused on being back in The Show sometime in '22

July 9th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- Remember Sixto Sánchez?

The flamethrowing rookie who drew comparisons to his idol and Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez during a buzzworthy first stint in the Majors? The centerpiece of the J.T. Realmuto trade with the Phillies? How could you not -- with him sporting a triple-digit fastball, a devastating changeup and an unforgettable first name?

But it has been nearly one year since Sánchez underwent surgery to repair a capsular tear and to clean out the back side of his right shoulder. The discomfort first surfaced in a simulated game on March 31, 2021, as he prepared to join the Opening Day rotation. Diagnosed with inflammation, Sánchez was sidelined for months -- his rehab going through a series of starts and stops before he finally underwent the surgical procedure on July 20.

On a humid Saturday morning at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex, Sánchez tossed a 30-pitch bullpen session as he continues his gradual progression -- something that proved elusive last summer -- in his throwing program. This would've seemed improbable as recently as March, when the lockout ended and he was optioned to Triple-A Jacksonville during Spring Training. He felt discomfort again while starting to long toss, but an MRI revealed no structural damage.

"I'd like to thank God that I'm feeling really good. [I'm] going to continue to work hard to get that success back," Sánchez said via an interpreter.

Sánchez, who turns 24 on July 29, calls these bullpen and side sessions Phase 1 of his return. He will face batters next week for the first time since March 2021. His stuff isn't completely back, though that is to be expected, considering the amount of time he has missed. His fastball has reached 94 mph, but just 91 mph on Saturday. His pinpoint command wasn't quite there -- unlike previous sessions -- and Sánchez didn't hide his frustration. He only recently began incorporating his slider.

According to MLB Pipeline's scouting report, what makes Sánchez so unique is his repeatable delivery and combination of pure stuff and command.

"From our perspective, he's not having any issues with the shoulder," general manager Kim Ng said. "This is just a natural progression for him, so there's going to be some rust, of course. He'll still work all that out."

So how is this go-around different from 2021? Sánchez said he began to turn the corner once the complex reopened following the lockout and he could restart his throwing program. It has been a months-long journey of rebuilding his confidence.

"I think initially, with any surgery, you're a little [worried about] that happening again. But it looks like his confidence is back," said Hector Crespo, the Marlins' director of Minor League operations. "His work ethic has been great. We're excited. I know he feels great and he wants to be out there. It's just continuing his progression and being on him -- and I think his work ethic, right now, is he's ready to go."

Sánchez's setbacks have tested his resolve. When he last took the mound in an MLB game, the Marlins faced elimination in the 2020 National League Division Series against the Braves.

Much has changed since then. The Marlins lost 95 games in 2021 and now they're in the '22 NL Wild Card picture. While Sánchez catches some of the games, it can be tough to watch because he wants to be out there competing. His primary goal for '22 is a to return to The Show.

"You think back to when you were a child and when you're a kid [with] dreams of wanting to play Major League Baseball," Sánchez said. "So you start thinking back to that point and that's pretty much what keeps me motivated and happy."

Once a Top 100 prospect, uncertainty with his health has pushed Sánchez off of that list and down to No. 5 in Miami's system. Relative newcomers Eury Pérez and Max Meyer have replaced him as the can't-miss prospects, something he used to be.

That didn't stop No. 6 prospect Jake Eder, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, from observing Sánchez's session on Saturday. And though Crespo didn't catch Sánchez's latest bullpen, he calls the right-hander one of his favorites to watch because of how effortless he throws.

"I don't really feel forgotten, because the fans pretty much still reach out to me," Sánchez said. "[They ask] when I'm going to to return and I pretty much just reply and tell them that I'll be back soon."

Added Crespo: "That's a guy who's tough to forget about. [He has] elite stuff and [is] a guy that's two years removed from pitching in meaningful innings in playoff games. We can't wait to get him back and we know he makes our team better."