Humberto Sanchez is more than happy to put the 2007 baseball season in his rear-view mirror, but the New York Yankees right-hander has every reason in the world to believe that 2008 will be a year to remember.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 17, 2007, what had been a promising season for one of the newest top prospects in the Yankees organization suddenly became a long, hot summer of rehab.
Not only did Sanchez, 24, have to start on a 12 to 18-month recovery period, but soon after he had a complication that set him back a few more weeks.
Despite feeling strong and in shape, the 6-foot-6 right-hander discovered that he was unable to completely straighten his arm.
"It didn't hurt to throw, but my extension wasn't where it was supposed to be," explained Sanchez, who underwent more X-rays with famed doctor Dr. James Andrews to figure out the cause of the problem. "They showed that I had some bone spurs in my elbow that had calcified. It happens in maybe one out of 400 cases, but for some reason in mostly Hispanic guys, though they don't know why."
Knowing that it could cause future problems, Sanchez and his doctor decided to go back into surgery to clean out the spurs, setting his progress back another couple of weeks.
The surgery itself put Sanchez's much-anticipated pinstripes debut on hold. Yankee fans had been eagerly anticipating his '07 arrival in New York since he'd come over from the Detroit Tigers organization the previous November as the key prospect in the Gary Sheffield deal.
Armed with a lively fastball and a 12-to-6 curve, Sanchez had been one of the brightest pitching prospects in the Tigers organization in 2006, representing his native Dominican Republic as the starting pitcher for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game in Pittsburgh.
But he would make just three more starts for Triple-A Toledo that year. The third start, in early August, was the last time he's taken the mound in a game.
He'd been bothered by a sore elbow most of the season, though a series of MRIs did not conclusively determine a cause.
"Some doctors said I could try to continue rehabbing," said Sanchez, who opted at the time to see what rest and rehab would do to help him through the setback.
Cognizant of his elbow trouble, the Yankees still jumped at the chance to acquire Sanchez when they sent Sheffield to Detroit. He continued to work out with the club at its Tampa complex, just over an hour from where he was living in Orlando.
Hopes were still high that he'd be ready to start the season with the Yankees' new Triple-A squad at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, anchoring what was projected to be one of the best rotations in the Minors.
But by Spring Training it was increasingly clear that it was not to be.
"They said, 'Hey, just make the decision -- if [surgery] is what you want or if you want to keep trying to pitch through the pain,'" Sanchez recalled. "But after a few more exams I knew nothing would help and the longer I waited the worse it would be."
So on April 17 Dr. Andrews performed Tommy John ligament surgery on Sanchez's right elbow and the 12 to 18-month clock started as he rehabbed through the summer months in Tampa.
Though he lived about an hour east on Interstate 4 with his fiancée Jennifer, whom he wed this past November, Sanchez kept an apartment in Tampa during the week so he could be closer to the Yankee complex.
Despite the grueling work, Sanchez knows that the mental part of the rehab process is harder than the physical part.
"The physical part you can always get through, so I think it's more mental," he said, "But Jennifer came to visit on her days off and my mom came down from New York a lot to see me so it was overall a good summer when it could have been a lot worse."
When Sanchez's mother came down from New York, she visited her son in a Minor League complex with a stadium that bore a more-than-passing resemblance to one of her favorite places in the world: Yankee Stadium.
Though born in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez came to America with his family when he was 10 and settled in the Bronx, literally five blocks away from Yankee Stadium.
Already blessed with both a passion and a talent for baseball, he immediately found a good youth league coached by a local police officer and spent most of his spare time there.
Ironically, the coach had season tickets to New York Mets games, so Sanchez estimates he's probably been to more Mets than Yankees games, but he still got to several games at Yankee Stadium every summer as well -- and when he did it was usually with his mom, a diehard Yankee fan.
When he graduated from South Bronx High School, though, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers that took Sanchez in the ninth round of the 2000 Draft. He opted instead to go to nearby Rockland Community College. In 2001 when the Tigers selected him in the 31st round as a draft-and-follow, he moved west, transferring to Connors State Junior College in Oklahoma. His 8-1 record and 1.17 ERA in12 starts there produced enough first-round pick buzz that Detroit signed him with a $1 million bonus to keep him from returning to the draft.
Sanchez worked his way through the Tigers system slowly between 2002 and 2006, taking it one level at a time as he battled nagging injuries from a sore knee to a strained oblique and groin pull.
But in the elite Arizona Fall League in 2005 he was on his game, posting a 2.15 ERA in six starts before heading to Double-A Erie, where he'd been sidelined for much of 2005, to start 2006.
This time he was on, posting a 1.75 ERA as a starter before moving up to Toledo in June. But his on-field time was running out.
On November 10, 2006, just days after the end of the World Series in which his Tigers had lost to St. Louis, Sanchez was traded, along with pitchers Anthony Claggett and Kevin Whelan, to the Yankees.
The first thing Sanchez did, of course, was to call his mom, who promptly hung up on him, thinking he was kidding. She didn't know her son was telling the truth until she saw the trade reported later that evening on ESPN.
When visiting his mom in New York, he's watched the new Yankee Stadium rise next to the current park. It fills him with mixed emotions.
"The stadium was old and I'm all for change," he said. "The new stadium is absolutely state-of-the-art. I was just in awe at how beautiful everything was."
Sanchez knows what the next months hold for him -- throwing constantly and getting into shape. The latter, Sanchez admits, is something he has historically not been too keen on.
A healthy Humberto Sanchez should play a big role in the Yankees system. Will he be ready to break camp with them at the end of March? He knows he won't.
When camp convenes next month, expect Sanchez to be about a month or so behind the other pitchers reporting. It is hoped that by March he'll be able to throw off a mound. Ideally he would finish Spring Training by remaining in Tampa for a rehab stint with the Yankees' Class A Advanced Florida State League team.
When he is deemed ready, perhaps an assignment to the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees awaits. The spring and summer might include another appearance at the Futures Game, this one to be held at Yankee Stadium in its final season. Perhaps Sanchez will be chosen once again as the World Team's starting pitcher, right in the shadow of his old apartment.
But first Sanchez has a few more months of work to do. While others around him will be settling into their roles in Spring Training, Sanchez is looking ahead to a promising summer.
"My goal is just to be 100 percent by the end of April, a year out from the surgery," he said. "My dream goal would be to be in New York by the All-Star break, but a lot of things come into it -- if they need someone there [and] my performance at that point."
With Yankee Stadium entering its final year, there is more incentive than ever for Sanchez to complete his rehab and make it to the big leagues this season.
"Oh, it's definitely been on my mind," he said. "Especially [after] getting married and having a baby. I'd like to have Jennifer come to a game at the old Yankee Stadium; she's never been there before. And my baby. And my family."