They have taken two very different paths to reach the same point.
When Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez face off in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series for the Red Sox and Tigers (respectively), it will represent an unexpected reunion of sorts. The two were 21-year-old teammates with Double-A Portland in 2005, but the fact that they find themselves on this shared stage of the ALCS -- Lester as the longtime anchor of the Red Sox, Sanchez as the American League ERA leader -- would not have been easily predicted eight years ago.
"I think we were probably completely different pitchers back then; naive, young, stupid, [just] throwers. But obviously watching him over the past couple of years in Florida and now Detroit really mature and figure out who he is," Lester suggested. "I think that's everybody's kind of nemesis when you get called up is figuring out who you are as a pitcher. You try to model yourself off of a lot of people growing up and [through the] minor leagues, and when you get to the big leagues you have to figure out who you are. And I think he's done a good job of that. Obviously his stats speak for themselves."
That is one man's recollection of an earlier point in time, but it doesn't necessarily reflect the reality of who the two of them were back in Portland.
The 2005 season represented a breakthrough for Lester, but it was a breakthrough that could be seen coming a mile away. The Sox had taken him with their top pick (second round) of the 2002 draft, and he had the raw materials (though not yet molded) of a future ace. He'd struggled and undergone considerable mechanical overhauls in 2004 with High-A Sarasota (7-6, 4.28 ERA), but the Sox were confident that a season like the one he had in 2005 with Portland wasn't too far around the bend.
And so, when Lester went 11-6 with a 2.61 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings with the Sea Dogs in 2005, emerging as one of the elite pitching prospects in baseball, manager Todd Claus -- who had also been with Lester the previous year in Sarasota -- wasn't shocked.
"He had a spike in velocity [in 2005]. I think it was just a credit to his hard work. He got physically stronger," Claus, now a Red Sox international scout, recalled by phone on Friday. "He’ll probably tell you that his work routine went to a new level, his pre-pitch routine. What [Sarasota pitching coach] Al Nipper did with him in Sarasota carried forward. He got professionalized and stronger, and it just kind of all came together for him [in Portland]."
Claus said that Lester's fastball ticked up from topping out around 93-94 mph in Sarasota to 95 or 96 with Portland. That increase was enough to establish him as one of the preeminent left-handed power pitching prospects in the minors.
But it wasn't a surprise. Those who had seen Lester up close in the Red Sox organization assumed that such an emergence was a when, not an if, proposition.
"I don’t know that it changed the projection, because I think a lot of people saw it in there," said Claus. "He was talked about during the season. A lot of teams had interest in him. I think a lot of teams saw his upside. I wasn’t surprised to see him throw harder and get bigger and stronger."
His arrival that year in Portland wasn't a shock, and in many ways, based on what he did there, his subsequent career arc is not a stunner. Claus viewed Lester as a potential front-of-the-rotation pitcher on a championship-caliber team, an evaluation that suggested that there were Game 1 starts in his future.
That's precisely what has happened.
"I think we thought he had that type of upside," said Claus. "It’s hard to label a young kid a front-of-the-rotation starter, but I think what makes him that is his makeup, his desire, his work ethic. He’s able to execute his game plan. He’s a pro now. We just started to scratch that in Sarasota and then it kind of clicked for him in Portland."
Sanchez was a different case altogether. Lester was the sturdy, powerful, 6-foot-4 left-hander with the power arsenal: mid-90s fastball, swing-and-miss curve and an emergent cutter that minor leaguers had no idea how to handle. The right-handed Sanchez was an even 6 feet, and while he would pitch in the low-90s, his stuff wasn't considered elite.
And whereas Lester's progression through the minors was steady, Sanchez's was not. He spent two years pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League after the Sox signed him in 2001, then missed all of 2003 while recovering from surgery to transpose a nerve in his right elbow. But when he returned to the mound in 2004, the velocity bump from the high-80s to the low-90s with short-season Single-A Lowell -- along with a good feel for a changeup and a curveball that showed potential -- was enough to permit him to dominate, leading the New York-Penn League with a 1.77 ERA while striking out 101 batters in 76 1/3 innings.
That performance put him on the fast track. He was assigned to High-A Wilmington to start the 2005 season, but pitched so well there (6-1, 2.40 ERA, 10.9 strikeouts per nine) that he earned a mid-season promotion to Portland. There, he went 3-5 with a 3.45 ERA while punching out 9.9 per nine innings (the same strikeout rate as Lester) while walking just 2.5 per nine in his 11 starts.
To Claus, who had not prior experience with Sanchez, he was something of a revelation.
"He kind of burst on the scene in Lowell. I remember [former Red Sox director of international scouting] Craig Shipley talking to me about him, saying this kid is going to move fast," said Claus. "You didn’t know how good he was going to be. He also had a spike in velocity, but I don’t know that anybody predicted he would be this good. He went through some arm problems. He’s a 6-foot right-hander. I don’t know that anybody thought he was going to be this good. I think lots of people liked him and thought he would be successful. But where he is now, going through the arm injury around the time of Portland, it’s amazing. He’s come a long way."
Claus remembered Sanchez as a pitcher who demonstrated feel for three pitches that would have graded as major league average or better, along with an understanding of his craft. In him, Claus could see a future big league starter, but the idea of Sanchez as a future ERA title winner and Game 1 starter didn't make it into the year-ending reports.
"I don’t think he was just out-stuffing guys like [Jonathan] Papelbon did and [Manny] Delcarmen did," said Claus, citing a pair of right-handers on Portland's roster in 2005 who would both reach the big leagues that year. "They just brought stuff. I think he brought a little more polish. He had a feel for how to work though a hitter, how to mix speeds and change his pitches. He was a pitcher at a young age, and then the stuff obviously improved and it all came together, but I wasn’t around when it all came together for him."
That isn't to say that Claus and the Sox overlooked Sanchez. They saw the possibility of a valuable rotation component -- just not necessarily one to whom a team would characterize as a front-of-the-rotation talent.
"Obviously he was a part of that trade for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell," said Claus, a reference to Sanchez's place as the secondary piece (Hanley Ramirez was the centerpiece) of a deal between the Sox and Marlins after the 2005 season. "Other scouts obviously thought highly of him as well. I thought he was going to be a starter, but to say he was going to be a front-end of the rotation guy who was making all those millions of dollars, I couldn’t have guessed that. But he was definitely talented. I know we thought highly of him, for sure."
There were times when Sanchez showed tremendous ability with the Marlins, as when he threw a no-hitter in 2006. But he missed so much time in 2007-09 with a host of shoulder injuries (he made the equivalent of one year's worth of big league starts over a three year stretch) that it took time for his career to take shape.
But that it has, in a fashion that has exceeded Claus' expectations. Since the start of the 2009 season, Sanchez has posted ERAs under 4.00 each season, with a cumulative 3.47 mark and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings during that time. Since a mid-year trade to Detroit last year, the right-hander has come into his own as a force for a team with title ambitions.
"He had some success in Florida, but when he got to Detroit, I saw a couple of dominating performances. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy can throw any pitch he wants in any count, and it’s moving all over the place,' " said Claus. "His fastball can explode at times -- not necessarily velocity, but it takes off to his arm side. He can glide it up in the zone. I guess it was just seeing him once he got to Detroit. It was just like, ‘That’s the finished product -- it’s pretty impressive.’ "
Of course, there's a lot of that from the 2005 Portland team, a team that was loaded with 18 eventual big leaguers, some obvious (Lester, Papelbon, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, Sanchez) and some less so (Kason Gabbard, Chris Smith, Charlie Zink, among others). Even now, nearly a decade later, Claus encounters regular reminders of how good that team was.
"Every time I turn on a game, I’m like, 'That guy played for me, that guy played for me,' " Claus mused. "You see it all the time. Sitting with my wife, she’s like, ‘Every time we turn on a game, somebody played for you.’ "
In an epic talent class, Lester stood out to Claus as being at the top of the heap given his obvious potential impact on a team. Sanchez, meanwhile, serves as a reminder that not all paths to status as an impact big leaguer are the same, and that while the crystal ball works well with some young players like Lester, it is a murkier undertaking with others such as Sanchez who might flourish later in their careers.
And now, the two of them have arrived to the same point, the same stage, in an unexpected reunion for which there's plenty at stake.