The Yankees have garnered a reputation over the past four decades for buying their way into contention by signing Major League free agents instead of focusing on the more conventional method of player development. Granted, that label has some merit, but there is no denying that the New York farm system is bursting at the seams with talent behind the plate.
While potential trade partners have salivated over the likes of Jesus Montero and Austin Romine of late, an equally promising prospect is Gary Sanchez, an 18-year-old who is doing a solid job of learning the nuances associated with catching on a daily basis with the Charleston RiverDogs.
"It's been a big adjustment for Gary in his first full year," said Charleston manager Aaron Ledesma. "He's had to adjust to a lot of things both on and off the field. At times it's been a struggle for him. He's also struggled a little with some of the high expectations that have been put on him. But overall, I'm pleased with his progress, and I believe he has a bright future."
Possessing raw power at the plate and soft hands with a strong arm behind it, Sanchez has ridden the learning curve during his first full professional campaign. He batted .267 in the first half before wilting during the tremendous heat of July, when he hit .210 in 21 contests. The native of the Dominican Republic proceeded to get August off to a great start by going 3-for-5 with three RBIs at Asheville. His three-run shot in the top of the ninth highlighted Charleston's five-run frame to help the Riverdogs break a six-game losing streak with a 9-8 victory Aug. 1. The blast was Sanchez's 11th home run of the year, and he's smacked three more in the last two days to raise his total to 14. He's now batting .251 with 47 RBIs.
Defensively, Sanchez retired 32 of the first 107 base runners that attempted to steal against him, a success rate of 29.9 percent. He moves well but needs to improve his ability to block balls in the dirt as well as his footwork on his throws to second. Sanchez also speaks little English, which has limited his ability to communicate with some of the Charleston pitchers. He has leaned heavily on pitching coach Carlos Chantres, who agrees with Ledesma's assessment of Sanchez's development.
"Behind the plate he has some work to do," Ledesma said. "He's played more games in the second half back there, and because of that he's shown a lot of improvement. Offensively, he has some raw power; he just needs to learn how to hit. He's not used to pitchers throwing 3-1 breaking balls. It all boils down to the fact that he just needs to play games. He needs experience. He's struggled working with pitchers and getting on the same page, but Carlos is working with him every day, including before, during and after every game."
None of his numbers will become etched in the minds of baseball historians, but they do suggest how well Sanchez is progressing as a young man who will not celebrate his 19th birthday until Dec. 2. Factor in his responsibilities as both a hitter and a leader of the pitching staff as well as the adjustments the Latin teenager is making to the culture in the United States, and the overall results are even more impressive than any figures might otherwise indicate.
"Catcher is the most important position on the field," Ledesma said. "Everything is centered on the catcher. At times it's been tough for him due to his inexperience. He works hard, but he's 18, and he does what other 18-year-olds would do. It's a maturing process he's having to go through, and hopefully in two or three years we'll be able to look back and see how far he has come."
In many ways, Sanchez is providing much of what the Yankees expected when they signed the receiver in July 2009 to a $3 million bonus, the largest amount the storied franchise had ever given a teenager. He proceeded to hit .353 with 11 doubles, six home runs and 36 RBIs in 31 games in the Gulf Coast League in 2010 before concluding the campaign by batting .278 in 16 outings in the New York-Penn League. Baseball America tabbed Sanchez as the best prospect in the GCL and the second-best Minor Leaguer in the Yankees' farm system.
His performance set the stage for his first full year of pro ball in 2011. He has encountered a few challenges along the way, including a week-long return to extended Spring Training in Tampa during April for undisclosed reasons. Otherwise, Sanchez has been a fixture in the Charleston lineup while catching most days and serving as the designated hitter for other games.
"We're looking for Gary to be better at the end of the year than he was at the beginning," Ledesma said. "If that's the case, and I believe it will be, then we've done our job."
Buchanan bumped up: Lakewood RHP David Buchanan, the SAL leader with 11 wins and the North Division starter in the SAL All-Star Game, was promoted to Class A Advanced Clearwater on Aug. 1. Buchanan also ranked 10th on the circuit with a 3.38 ERA, thanks in part to allowing only one earned run in his last 15 innings with the BlueClaws. Buchanan threw a nine-inning complete game on May 7, becoming the first Lakewood pitcher to accomplish the feat since Carlos Monasterios in 2007.
Night of numbers: After battling to the wire for the first-half crown in the North Division, Hickory and Hagerstown met for the first time in the second half on Monday night and piled up some numbers before the Crawdads pulled out the 14-13 victory in 10 innings. In addition to scoring a combined 27 runs, the teams had a total of 33 hits, 10 walks and three hit batters. Seven batters had three hits apiece. The Suns' Michael Taylor had six RBIs, thanks to two home runs, while the Crawdads' Christian Villanueva, Josh Richmond and Alejandro Selen had three RBIs each. The Suns also swiped nine bases in the contest.
Rome on a roll: After posting the worst record among the 30 Class A clubs for much of the season, the Rome Braves won for the 10th time in their last 14 games with a 3-2 triumph over Greenville on Aug. 1. The team has moved into fifth place in the South Division's second-half standings by going 13-9 since Rick Albert was named manager July 7. "We've been playing a little looser and just playing more relaxed baseball," shortstop b>Matt Lipka told the Rome News-Tribune. "We're starting to win a lot of close games, and we're coming up with timely hits in key situations, like we did tonight. And our pitching has been great, too."