Sanchez Starting To Come Into His Own

Sanchez continues to make real progress

He's got the tools of a future baseball phenom, the 6-foot-2 220 pound build like a major leaguer, and yet, is barely old enough to drink a beer. The recently turned 21-year-old Gary Sanchez is starting to come into his own as the face of the New York Yankees' future in spite of the fact that he's ahead of schedule.

Yankees' Vice President of Baseball Operations, Mark Newman, commented last June that Sanchez would likely remain with the Single-A Tampa Yankees for the entire 2013 season. However, an abundance of injuries throughout the organization and more development to his all-around game led to Sanchez's arrival in Trenton sooner rather than later.

On August 4, Sanchez made his Double-A debut with the Trenton Thunder. He went 1-3 with a double and never looked back from there. By the end of the year, he had been a vital part of Trenton's postseason run that led to the team's third Eastern League championship since 2007.

His manager in Trenton, Tony Franklin, spent a decade as a minor leaguer in the farm systems of the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs, the Montreal Expos, and the Baltimore Orioles. He has also been a minor league manager for 20 seasons, spending the last seven years as the skipper of the Double-A ball club for the Yankees' organization.

Sanchez is the youngest catcher that Franklin has managed in his tenure in Trenton, so there is a lot to think about when it comes to developing him. At the same, he admires Sanchez because of the skillset and overall ability he has.

"At 20 years old, wow! I wish I was that good when I was 20," Franklin said at the end of the season. "I wasn't even that good when I was 25. I think the biggest thing [with Gary] though is you don't worry about the baseball so much. You worry about how well he's growing, maturing, understanding, taking care of himself. Baseball is what he's done all his life. So once Gary gets all those things in order, the baseball just takes off."

In Franklin's tenure as the Double-A manager, he has managed several notable and talented catchers in the Yankees' organization, like Sanchez. Specifically, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, Francisco Cervelli, and most recently, J.R. Murphy all had what it took to make the major leagues.

Though each catcher played valuable roles on the team at different times in their baseball career, they all brought various skillsets. Franklin found it difficult to compare Sanchez to the others who came and went from Trenton.

"I hesitate to compare any of them," Franklin said. "They all have different styles; they all brought some things that the organization wanted them to do a little bit better. Montero could hit the ball as far as anybody, Murphy can catch, throw, and hit, Romine hit well when he was here and he caught well here. I think Gary is doing the same thing too. What they all brought was youth and tools."

Sanchez started playing baseball in his home country, the Dominican Republic. It's a place that has grown notable major leaguers such as David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and so many more. Growing up there, baseball isn't just an ordinary sport.

"I started playing when I was about eight or nine years old," Sanchez said with the help of a translator. "Baseball really is a way of life down in the Dominican Republic. It is not quite as organized as you will find it up here but you do start playing baseball down there when you are young. That's a lot of what you do as a child."

One of the most significant challenges was that the leagues for children to play baseball in the Dominican Republic were not nearly as organized as it is here in America.

Typically when playing baseball in America, a child will start by playing in tee-ball leagues, followed by several years in Little League, and then play at the Babe Ruth level before playing at school if he chooses. At each level, the leagues are consistently organized into specific teams, every team is provided with quality equipment such as bats, fielding gloves, batting helmets and a variety of other equipment to help people enjoy the game of baseball as time goes by.

On the other side of the spectrum, playing in the Dominican Republic is nearly the opposite. Everything mentioned about playing in the U.S. was challenging for people in the Dominican to obtain. When playing baseball as a child, Sanchez and the other kids he played with had to play with makeshift equipment and resort to the streets of his hometown, Santo Domingo, to compete.

What they lacked in the amount of gear they made up for in devotion to the sport.

"I played kind of in a street organized league," Sanchez said. "It was nothing like it is here [in America] because here, it is very formal with all the equipment and they give you everything you need. There were times [in the Dominican Republic] where you may not have a bat or ball, so you had to find your way, but everyone there still competes and tries hard, and it's a lot of fun."

It was when he was playing in those leagues where he began to hone his skills at the catcher position, but to a certain extent, he became a catcher by accident. It wasn't the first position that he had been accustomed to when he was a kid, but he made the switch simply because he just wanted to play the game.

"In the league I was in, I used to be a third baseman," Sanchez said. "But we had a third baseman who was an older kid, and more mature than I was. We had kids that could play every position and the only position that was always open and nobody else wanted to play was catcher. So I ended up catching and I realized that I was pretty good, and that's how it started."

He began playing and developing himself both offensively and defensively and became recognized enough to get noticed by scouts with the New York Yankees. He was just barely a teenager when he first learned about what bright future he could have ahead of him.

He challenged himself by playing in a league with other kids who were more experienced in the game. Trying to keep up with them, he noticed he was starting to improve significantly.

"When I was about 13 or 14, that's when I started hearing about the potential of playing at the professional level," Sanchez said. "I was playing really hard in a league with older kids, I was able to start hitting and I threw well from behind the plate. That's when I started hearing about what could happen in 2009 with all the potential there was in signing, but it goes back to when I was about 13 or 14."

The hard work in the street leagues and testing himself against older kids proved to be worthwhile. On July 2, 2009, at the age of 16, Gary Sanchez officially signed a contract worth $3 million to start his professional baseball career with the Bronx Bombers.

"It's absolutely a day that I'll remember for the rest of my life," Sanchez said. "I had never really thought about even competing at the professional levels, but I was extremely happy and grateful for the opportunity. It was my entrance into professional baseball, so it was definitely a day I will remember for the rest of my life."

Today, at age 21, Sanchez has already built up a resume in the minor leagues, and is close to making the major leagues. At the same time, he's playing in a league where the players he is facing are more experienced in the pros than he is.

"Gary is a young kid," the Double-A coach Franklin said. "He should be a freshman or sophomore in college right now. He's working hard and that's what he's supposed to do. He's not backing off the game at all and he's working at it. Everybody's going to say that everything needs work. He just needs the chance to grow and hopefully he's improving."

In his first taste of professional baseball, he split the 2010 season with other drafted and signed rookies in the Gulf Coast League, followed by time with the Staten Island Yankees of the New York/Penn League; the Yankees' short-season Single-A club.

He finished the year with a .329 batting average in 47 games with both teams, hitting eight home runs, with 43 RBIs and a lot of excitement to see what's next for his career.

"Whether it was hitting or anything else, I was trying to do everything that I was capable of doing," Sanchez said about his 2010 season. "I just went out and played to have fun. Coming in and putting together a good season offensively, that helped me a lot. It definitely gave me the confidence I wanted and needed going forward."

The next team for Sanchez was the Charleston RiverDogs; the lower Single-A level team that plays in the South Atlantic League. He hit 17 home runs and added 52 RBIs, but the batting average dropped down to .256.

He played the full season with the farm team and though it was a bit of a sophomore slump for Sanchez, he learned a lot about how much work it really takes to make it to the major leagues; nonetheless in order to rise up the minor league levels.

"It was tough season for me offensively in my first year with Charleston [in 2011] and I really wasn't doing well," Sanchez said. "It was just about working hard, working constantly and listening to what the coaches were teaching me, and then I made some adjustments that I needed to offensively and defensively."

In 2012, Sanchez found his groove in Charleston and bounced back to hit .297 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs. He earned a promotion to the High-A Tampa Yankees after 68 games with the Low-A club.

In his 48 games with Tampa, he added another five home runs and 29 RBIs to finish his 2012 season totals with career highs in home runs (18), RBIs (85) and an average of .290 between his stints in both leagues.

However, a lot of his improvements he made were on defense and with establishing a rapport with the pitching staff. Though he doesn't speak much English, he has worked hard on getting to know his pitchers and their tendencies.

"I feel his game calling is getting better," said Bryan Mitchell, a teammate of Sanchez's for a few seasons. "His communication is also better as far as his English, but he's gotten better [as a catcher] over the years. I put the game in his hands. I may shake off once or twice a game when I want to use a particular pitch, but for the most part, I let the catcher just call a game. We usually have a great relationship."

Last season, due to a plethora of injuries throughout the New York Yankees' organization, the minor league rosters have been flooded with players who have experienced multiple levels. Due to the countless injuries, 78 minor leaguers experienced playing time with the Tampa Yankees and 72 players had seen time with the Double-A Trenton Thunder.

Sanchez is one of many players to see time with both clubs in 2013. He played 94 games in Tampa, batting .254 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs. While there were still adjustments to be made offensively, last year was about the defensive improvements he made; especially when it comes to throwing out base runners trying to steal on him.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2012, Sanchez only threw out approximately 30 percent of runners, but he improved that mark in 2013 to about 47 percent.

"[In Tampa] I worked hard to strengthen everything," Sanchez said in a prior interview. "Offensively I was working on hitting, but defensively, it was working on fundamentals in order to throw to second base. When I came back to playing in January, I was just working on my positioning and other things like that."

Mitchell was not surprised when he saw the number of guys who were thrown out by Sanchez.

"I feel like since I have been playing with him for three or four years, it's almost like I'm used to seeing him throw guys out," he said. "I was reading something that said his percentage of throwing base runners out was something [crazy] like 47.1 percent and no other guy in the league had even been at 40 percent. I guess it goes unnoticed when you've played with him for so long, but he is really good."

For the Thunder, he batted .250 in his 23 games as the clean-up hitter in a lineup with top Yankee prospects such as Ramon Flores, Mason Williams, and Tyler Austin.

Additionally, even though improvements have already been made defensively, Sanchez still has used his time with the Trenton Thunder to devote himself to cleaning up his fundamentals.

One current major league player he looks up to and would like to model his game after is St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. In order to be as good as he is, Sanchez uses the team's video room and considers that a huge luxury.

"I like the way he plays defensively and he works hard," Sanchez said about the all-star catcher. "Working on things by seeing video is huge. You see things that you probably wouldn't notice. After seeing and recognizing things in the video, I try to clean up the mistakes as much as I can. I feel like I'm receiving, blocking, and throwing a lot better."

He has also started to work with Thunder coach Luis Dorante. Dorante has been on the staff of the Double-A ball club since 2011 and worked with JR Murphy during his 92 games in Trenton. He now has a new project with Sanchez.

"Being around Gary for the last month [of the season] or so, he's got a lot of tools that he needs to be polished," Dorante said. "It just comes down to working on them on a daily basis. You can put all the work in you want, but it's just a matter of going into the game and applying all of it in those situations."

Offensively, Sanchez came nearly as advertised to the Thunder. He appeared in all six playoff games, driving in three runs while batting .308 (4-for-13) in the championship series as he helped lead the Thunder to its third title in the last seven seasons.

One important trait that the minor league manager Franklin admired about Sanchez, besides that he's a 20-year-old with potential, was his poise and discipline when up to bat.

"We're talking about [other guys] and the need to take more pitches, but Gary takes pitches," Franklin said. "He's pretty good with seeing as many pitches as he possibly can see. Does he get a little anxious? Yes. He'll have 1-2 pitch at bats, but if they're not throwing the ball over the plate, he's taking it. That's a good ability to have at 19 and 20 years old because that's what they're going to do in the major leagues."

So far, the career numbers in the minor leagues read well after four seasons of hard work to get adjusted to playing baseball at the professional level. Sanchez has been playing this game at a younger age than a lot of the players he's faced and has shown composure while doing it.

He already has a .275 overall batting average, with 58 home runs, 251 RBIs, and is ranked as the one of the top Yankee prospects.

Though he is just a couple levels away, there are still goals that Sanchez wants to fulfill before he and the organization will feel comfortable to be the catcher for the New York Yankees.

"I feel like I'm a small step before the major leagues," Sanchez said. "I just have to play in triple-A now, but at the same time, there are still things I need to work on and do.

"I'm close to the big leagues and it's exciting to think about, but I've got a job to do and it's to get better. I just want to keep working hard and do things the right way and try and get better in all aspects of the game in any way I can."

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