Anibal Sanchez was so determined to get his career back on track during the spring of 2017 that he once drove three hours across Florida just to throw a bullpen session to his manager.
Sanchez was 33 at the time and an 11-year veteran. He'd made some nice money and had some success, and when his career hit a wall with the Tigers, he could easily have walked away.
Instead, Sanchez believed in his heart he could still pitch at a high level. Never mind that the raw numbers said otherwise. Never mind that a lot of people doubted him.
That makes his success this season even sweeter. Three months after the Twins released Sanchez in Spring Training to make room for Lance Lynn, he's a $1 million signing that has helped make the Braves one of 2018's surprise teams.
Listen: Morning Lineup Podcast: 10 small moves that have paid off big time
Sanchez is a reminder that for all the attention we pay to the huge, forehead-slapping transactions, sometimes the small, smart ones pay off in a big way. These are the acquisitions that are more about scouting and coaching and seeing things others can't rather than spending money. After every season, we look back and count a bunch of moves like this that impacted the standings.
While there may be no better example than Sanchez, let's check out seemingly small moves that have paid a big dividend:
Armed with a wicked new cutter, Sanchez has made six starts for Atlanta, going 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA. The Braves have won five of his six turns on their way to first place in the National League East.
2. Wade LeBlanc, LHP, Mariners
As smart signings go, they don't get much better than this one. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto signed the soft-tossing 33-year-old lefty three days after he was let go by the Yankees this spring. LeBlanc entered the rotation in early May, and Seattle has won seven of his nine starts. He has a 2.06 ERA and opponents are hitting .215 since he became a starter.
3. Jhoulys Chacin, RHP, Brewers
As teams pursued the bigger-named (and more expensive) starting pitchers, Brewers GM David Stearns has gotten a nice return on the two-year, $15.5 million deal for this 30-year-old right-hander. In his past nine starts, Chacin has a 2.33 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .197 batting average.
4. Hector Rondon, RHP, Astros
GM Jeff Luhnow grabbed Rondon off the free-agent market for $8.5 million over two years, which was way less money than several other relievers received. Luhnow figured Rondon would provide quality depth and perhaps close if Ken Giles stumbled. That's exactly how it has played out, with Rondon outstanding in whatever role manager AJ Hinch has asked him to fill.
5. Matt Adams, 1B/LF, Nationals
GM Mike Rizzo scooped Adams off the free-agent market for $4 million bench depth. When the Nationals were hit hard by injuries, Adams stepped in and helped keep the team afloat through the first 2 1/2 months of the season before he landed on the 10-day disabled list on Tuesday with a broken left index finger.
6. Leonys Martin, CF, Tigers
For $1.75 million, Tigers GM Al Avila got a tremendous defensive presence in center as well as someone who's been using a nice combination of speed and power to be an impact contributor at the plate in a breakout offensive season.
7. Miles Mikolas, RHP, Cardinals
This 29-year-old right-hander remade his game during three seasons in Japan, and he returned to the Major Leagues with a polished curveball/slider combination that has made his 94-mph fastball even more effective. So far, the Cardinals have gotten a nice return on a two-year, $15.5 million commitment.
8. Clay Buchholz, RHP, D-backs
GM Mike Hazen had a history with Buchholz, and he signed the 33-year-old to a no-risk deal in May after the Royals released him. Injuries have forced Arizona to use nine starting pitchers, and in Buchholz's career renaissance, the D-backs have found an invaluable contributor. He has allowed more than two runs only twice over six starts, helping to keep Arizona atop the NL West.
9. Matt Kemp, LF, Dodgers
Does signing a former NL MVP Award runner-up qualify as a small move? Can a player making $21.75 million ever qualify as a small move? Well, it's complicated. Kemp returned to the Dodgers in a trade that was more about moving salary than reacquiring his services. At the time, the Dodgers thought they might be able to pick up some of his money and find a new home for him. But Kemp was still around at the start of Spring Training and looking as good as he had during his younger days when he was a two-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove Award winner with Los Angeles. When injuries hit the club hard, Kemp has stepped in and played some of the most productive baseball of his life. Like we said, it's complicated.
10. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Nationals
Rizzo signed Hellickson for $2 million to be depth for the rotation. When the Nationals needed a fifth starter, he stepped in and posted a 2.30 ERA through eight starts. Hellickson's season was interrupted by a pulled hamstring on June 3, but he could be back this weekend.