FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Considering he only cost them $5,000 and a plane ticket after being picked in the 25th round of the 2008 Draft, it's safe to say the Dodgers are getting their money's worth from Great Lakes first baseman Jerry Sands.
"I feel like they got a deal," Sands said. "I'm not gonna hold it against them. I'm hoping to get my money on the back end."
If he keeps up his current torrid pace, he'll see that money sooner rather than later. Sands has terrorized pitchers throughout the Midwest League this season, putting up eye-popping numbers that have him ranked either first or second in 10 offensive categories.
"It's been fun this season having success, but I feel like I need to have a better second half," Sands said.
He'd be hard-pressed to top his first-half numbers, with his current stat line suggesting a promotion could be in the offing. At the All-Star break, he's hitting .333 with 18 homers and 46 RBIs. Opposing managers have taken notice, ordering their pitchers to intentionally walk him a league-leading six times.
Sands said he's relaxing and having fun doing his job, and it's showing in his performance.
"I'm not missing pitches that I need to hit, that's the basic thing, not getting down in the count and having to struggle a little bit later," he explained.
Even more impressive is that he's been able to do all this while playing a position that's still relatively new to him.
An outfielder by trade, Sands was pressed into duty as a first baseman after getting called up to Great Lakes last season. He had never played the position in his life, but he's adjusted well.
In 351 chances, Sands has committed only two errors, something he credits to a lot of hard work and fine-tuning in the offseason.
"It's just the little stuff like being around the bag, holding runners on, just the small things that you never see but good first basemen do," he said.
And while he's only wanted to be a professional ballplayer, Sands has plans for a post-baseball life, should his hot streak ever run out. He's still a couple of credits short of earning his business degree from Catawba (N.C.) College. Once his playing days are over, he'll finish up but doesn't want to commit to school until he can direct all of his efforts to it.
"When I can do it in one span, I'll do it, but hopefully that's not for a few years here while I continue to stay in baseball," he said.
Following in dad's footsteps: Bo Greenwell had a childhood unlike most who are playing in the midsummer classic.
His father, Mike, spent 12 seasons patrolling left field at Fenway Park, earning a reputation as a fan favorite because of his work ethic and big bat. It meant young Bo got to see and do things that most kids only dream about.
"I was only 9 when my dad retired, but I definitely have memories of walking around the clubhouse and seeing Mo Vaughn, Tim Wakefield in his younger years and Roger Clemens," Greenwell said.
His childhood wasn't without regrets, though. While Bo enjoyed having those Red Sox legends to pal around with when he'd hang out with his dad, he said as a youngster he couldn't fully appreciate the opportunity to hang out with those guys.
"Unfortunately, when you're young like that you don't think of walking up to them and soaking up all the greatness that's around the clubhouse," he said. "You're more worried about getting that Cherry Coke after the game. It was definitely an experience that I'll never forget."
Now he's stepping out of his father's shadow and making a name for himself playing the same position his dad did. The Lake County Captains left fielder started the season as one of the league's hottest players with 10 multi-hit games in April and hasn't slowed down since. He helped lead a potent Lake County offense to the first-half Eastern Division title by hitting .310, stealing 15 bases and scoring 47 runs.
But the stats don't tell the whole story. Greenwell has established himself as a rarity -- a left-handed hitter who hits well against left-handed pitching. He's batting .373 against southpaws.
"I've been aggressive against them, I've tried to stay off that backdoor slider they kind of snap off on you," he said. "It's not just being able to hit the fastball, it's being able to lay off all the junk they throw you."
Another thing impressing scouts is his plate discipline. Greenwell's a rarity amongst sluggers, the proud owner of a strikeout-to-walk ratio that's nearly 1-1.
"I don't know if it's a skill you can develop or if it's something you're just gifted with," he said. "Sometimes I swing at balls and I'm like, 'What are you swinging at?'"
And while he said it's nice having a dad with baseball expertise to turn to, the two rarely talk shop, choosing to enjoy the time they have together in the offseason.
"He's dad to me, always kind of waiting in the wings and not saying too much," the younger Greenwell said. "If I ever ask him his opinion like, 'Hey, where would you go in this count or how'd you do against lefties,' he's always quick to chime in."
Living up to the hype: This time last year, Clinton LumberKings shortstop Nick Franklin was just graduating from high school in Florida, a recent first-round pick by the Mariners and newly minted millionaire, thanks to a hefty signing bonus.
Now he finds himself among the most talked about players in the Midwest League. Scouts rave about his consistency, both in the field and at the plate, and he's had no trouble adjusting from the aluminum bats he used in high school to the wooden bats he uses in the pros.
"So far, so good," Franklin said. "The pitching's right where I expected it to be."
So did he ever think things would come so easily during his first full pro season?
"It caught me by surprise," he said. "I just go out and do what I do and the main thing is hitting."
Hitting is what he's doing well. While he's struggled in the field (11 errors in 205 chances) he's shown flashes of brilliance at the plate. Franklin has led a group of Clinton sluggers who are living up to the team's nickname. The LumberKings lead the league with 68 homers, including a team-best 14 from Franklin.
Despite his first-round status and the expectations that come with it, Franklin insists he doesn't feel any extra pressure.
"Once you get out there, everybody's the same," he said. "It's the same level, you're all playing together and everybody's trying to get to the same goal, which is to make it to the big leagues, win a World Series and maybe become a Hall of Famer."
While he's dominated right-handed pitchers, the switch-hitter is struggling from the right side of the plate. Franklin is hitting .243 against southpaws, striking out 18 times in 74 trips to the plate. That could be attributed to the fact that hitting right-handed is still relatively new to him.
While Franklin is a natural righty, his father taught him to bat left-handed only starting when he was 3 years old. As a high school junior, his coach convinced him to try switch-hitting and developing his swing from his natural side of the plate.
Part of the problem is that he doesn't get enough reps from the right side.
"It's hard seeing them every six days, maybe because you see a righty maybe five or six days in a row," he said. "You don't even see a lefty coming out of the 'pen, you see all righties. That's just something for me to get used to, something for me to get comfortable with."
Top prospect heating up: When Beloit Snappers outfield prospect Aaron Hicks started struggling last month, he needed to take a step back and examine his approach to the game.
"Just not try and do too much, kind of stay within myself and do what I can do," he said.
What he can do is hit and hit well. Hicks enters the All-Star break on an absolute tear as one of the league's hottest hitters. He's batting .361 (13-for-40) in his last 10 games, with nine of those 13 hits going for extra bases. The West's starting center fielder also has shown flashes of defensive brilliance.
Fans in Fort Wayne watched in amazement at his throws from center field during Monday night's Skills Competition. In fact, coming out of high school many scouts thought his professional future was on the mound -- Hicks routinely hit 97 mph as a hurler.
And while he was a good pitcher, he said he rarely misses being on the mound.
"Some days when I'm going like 0-for-5 or something," he said. "That's probably the only time I do. But other than that, not really."
Now Hicks finds himself as the Twins' top prospect. Scouts rave about his raw athleticism and big bat and many say he's the hottest outfield prospect to come out of Southern California since another guy you may have heard of -- Darryl Strawberry.
Something that helped in Hicks' development was the time he spent working with coaches at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Hicks was the first player to train at the academy and be selected in the first round of the Draft.
Doug Takaragawa, the academy's program coordinator, said he knew as soon as Hicks got there as a 15-year-old that he had the potential to be something special.
"He loved the game. He's around the game, he loves to compete and loves to be in the center of it," Takaragawa says. "Whenever there was a game here, he wanted to be a part of it, regardless of what level. We could stick him in as a 10th grader into a college grade. He just wanted to be there playing."
"It helped a lot. It got me more prepared," Hicks said. "They were telling me stuff to work on, they gave me a lot of tips and so far it's worked out pretty well."
You wouldn't know Hicks has the hopes of Twins fans pinned on him though. The soft-spoken 20-year-old, a first-round pick in 2008, said he's fortunate to be in an organization he feels is loaded with good young talent.
"Honestly, I think everybody's the same throughout the organization and we've got a lot of great players throughout the organization," Hicks said.
Coming through in the clutch: Most Minor Leaguers spend their summers playing in small towns far from family and friends, chasing their dreams in front of thousands of strangers every night.
Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Casey Haerther is enjoying a different sort of home-field advantage. While he was raised in Southern California, his father grew up not far from Cedar Rapids' Veterans Memorial Stadium. In fact, his grandmother and uncle still live there, meaning he's got his own personal cheering section every time he takes the field.
"Everyone always asks me what it's like being in the middle of nowhere, but I go to my grandma's or my uncle's house for dinner, so it's been a fun time seeing that part of the family more," he said.
That home cooking has helped fuel a clutch bat. Haerther leads the league with 47 RBIs and is sixth with a .316 batting average. With runners in scoring position, he becomes an entirely different hitter. Haerther is batting .354 with 44 RBIs with RISP, something he attributes to getting good pitches to hit.
"They slip me breaking balls in there and I just wait for that fastball. I've been driving it lately," he said. "We've been on a roll, I've been helping the team win so it's been good."
Haerther's part of a potent lineup that features fellow All-Stars Mike Trout (.370, 6 HR, 35 RBIs) and Jean Segura (.285, 2, 37) and helped Cedar Rapids to its first outright first-half title since 1992.
"I'm always hitting with runners on, that's why I've got so many RBIs in the first half," Haerther said. "I can't ask for anything better than that."
He's also hoping some of his luck will rub off this week on his former UCLA teammates in the College World Series.
Haerther starred for the Bruins from 2007-09 and said he's keeping a close eye on the events transpiring in Omaha.
"I still talk to five or six of those guys and I'm excited for them. It's awesome that they're there," he said. "They haven't been there since 1997 when they had (Troy) Glaus. They've definitely changed around their team. They're more of a small ball team now and it's fun to watch."
And while he grew up rooting for the Dodgers, Haerther is looking forward to playing one day in the comfy confines of Angel Stadium.
"I grew up closer to LA than Orange County, so I'd always watch the Dodgers, but I like the Angels brand of baseball. It's fun to watch," he said.