As documentarian Ken Burns noted, baseball is the one game in which the defense -- not the offense -- possesses the ball. With this in mind, MiLB.com continues its "Defensive Gems" series. Over the next four weeks, we will feature a top prospect at each position who also happens to be an elite defender. In deciding which players to focus on, six scouting directors were polled and extensive research was conducted. We now move to second base, where the the Mariners' Nick Franklin, the Twins' Levi Michael and the Rangers' Rougned Odor, among others, were narrowly edged by...
Carlos Sanchez of the White Sox will not admit this to just anyone -- including this reporter, over the phone 2,500 miles away -- but those who know him well will say it for him: He was p----- off.
The fuming started when Sanchez, a second baseman/shortstop at Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, was not selected to play in last year's June 19 California/Carolina League All-Star Game hosted by his own team. Despite his low error total (six in 57 games) and his high batting average (.336) at the time of the announcement, the Dash infielder was overlooked.
But he didn't forget. In the first week of July, Sanchez took his Futures Game nod in stride, then tore through Double-A Birmingham on his way to Triple-A Charlotte, where he finished his first full pro season.
"He was the best second baseman and the best shortstop in the league," said Tommy Thompson, Winston-Salem's manager and the league's acting All-Star skipper. "He was on a mission to prove how good he was, and he took off and never looked back, even at a higher brand of baseball."
Sanchez's skills with the bat and on the basepaths earned him notice, but his polish with the glove is what sets him apart. At 20 and now Chicago's fourth-ranked prospect, the Venezuela native showed his ability to turn the double play with the best of them at second base as well as his range on either side of it.
Second, of course, is not where great defensive infielders start. It's where they end up. Where Sanchez winds up will rest almost entirely on team needs. The general consensus is that he is a plus defender at second, a satisfactory one at short and a quick learner at third base, where he's focusing his efforts this spring. Interestingly, third is also the spot he was listed at on Winston-Salem's roster (despite not playing a single game there), which may have caused some confusion on All-Star ballots.
"Things happen for a reason," Sanchez said from Major League camp in Spring Training, with a Sox official interpreting his Spanish, regarding the summer snub. "The most important thing for me was to keep my eye on what my dream was, and my dream is to play in the big leagues. Despite anything that may have happened, I have always tried to keep my eyes on that bigger prize."
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The date was July 28, 2011, and Sanchez was one month past his 19th birthday, two months past his domestic pro debut. The setting was the office of Thompson, then at the helm in Class A Kannapolis. His visitor was Kenny Williams, then general manager and now executive VP of the White Sox.
Williams: "Who on this team is going to help while I'm still the general manager?"
Thompson: "Carlos Sanchez."
Williams: "Compare him to somebody."
Thompson: "Roberto Alomar."
Williams: "You gotta be [expletive] me."
Thompson: "Kenny, this kid can play."
Then the game started. Lining up at second base, the position Sanchez excelled at during recent Arizona Fall and Venezuelan Winter League tours, he recorded the first two outs -- diving to his right for a ground ball and throwing out the speedy Rafael Ortega from his knees, then venturing to his left on a groundout struck by Cristhian Adames.
Capping it off: In his first plate appearance -- with one out in the bottom half of the opening inning -- Sanchez singled up the middle for the first of his two base knocks for the day.
"Kenny was up in the [press] box and he looked down at me [in the dugout] with his head nodding," recalled Thompson, who played with Williams in the Minors before both moved into player development. "The kid made my review look good.
"I have been with the White Sox 25 years, and I was lucky to coach Robin Ventura the first year he came out of college [in 1989], and I saw the talent in Robin. I see the same talent in this kid right here. I just let him play. Defensively, really there was nothing to be told to him. I just watched and wanted the ball to be hit to him every play."
Apparently so did the pitchers at Kannapolis, and this past season, at Winston-Salem. No one was more vocal about that than right-hander Chris Bassitt.
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Marcus Semien knows how hard it is to play one position well in the Minor Leagues, let alone two or three. The past two seasons, he was Sanchez's double-play partner.
"That first year in Kannapolis, personally, I didn't know what to expect coming into it. They sent me straight to full season, so I was a little nervous, didn't really know anybody," said Semien, a sixth-round draftee that summer who is now Chicago's No. 18 prospect. "First day of BP, I met Carlos and we took ground balls at shortstop together, and I noticed how good he was for how young he was. I think he was 18, [just about to turn] 19, and I was just impressed because I thought about when I was his age. I was still learning the basics and he was pretty advanced.
"He keeps me on my toes. I want to be just as good defensively as he is, or at least try to."
High time to ask then: What makes Sanchez so good at second base? Semien admired his ability to secure grabs on the move, while Thompson noted how Sanchez had little trouble throwing out the Carolina League's fastest base-runners -- the Red Sox's Jackie Bradley (Salem) and former Braves (now D-backs) farmhand Nick Ahmed (Lynchburg) chief among them -- no matter where he was throwing from.
"When he crossed the field, he showed even better talent. All the great skills -- his hands, his instincts, his feet -- transitioned over to the shortstop side," Thompson said. "Some people have him penciled in as a second baseman. I'm not so sure that he can't play shortstop in the Major Leagues and play it well."