Under normal circumstances, Thursday would have marked Opening Night across Minor League Baseball. Anthony Volpe was expected to start off with Class A Charleston. It would have been the Yankees' 2019 first-rounder's first Opening Night, coming after a bout of mononucleosis ended his first Minor League season prematurely last August.Of
Under normal circumstances, Thursday would have marked Opening Night across Minor League Baseball. Anthony Volpe was expected to start off with Class A Charleston. It would have been the Yankees' 2019 first-rounder's first Opening Night, coming after a bout of mononucleosis ended his first Minor League season prematurely last August.
Of course, these aren't normal circumstances with the Minor League season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I wanted to see just a culmination of all the work I put in during the offseason and early Spring Training," Volpe said. "Not just me, but all the work put in by everyone in the organization and all the guys that had been through the same thing. We all just wanted to play because we had been working, working, working. I was just so excited to get back on the field again."
As if that wasn't abnormal enough, Volpe's first Spring Training was unique even in baseball circles. Not only was Yankees camp cut short when Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training last month, but two New York Minor Leaguers then tested positive for coronavirus, causing everyone on the Minor League side to go into self-quarantine for two weeks.
Mono. A brush with COVID-19. This isn't how Volpe envisioned his career beginning, but he recognizes he didn't have much of a say in the matter.
"To an extent, this is all I've really known," he said. "I don't have anything else to compare it to."
While his first full season remains on pause indefinitely, it's important to remember what already makes Volpe the No. 9 prospect in a system loaded with plenty of youthful talent.
The lifelong Yankee fan from Watchung, New Jersey, became a first-round pick out of the Delbarton School in Morristown, where he played alongside Jack Leiter -- son of Major League pitcher Al and already a standout hurler at Vanderbilt. Lauded for his above-average hit tool and defensive skills at shortstop, Volpe had a strong commitment to Vandy, but caught the Yankees' eye with the 30th overall pick. New York talked the the 5-foot-11 infielder into going pro with a $2,740,300 signing bonus, topping the $2,365,500 slot money assigned to the Draft spot.
The Yankees thought enough of Volpe to skip him over the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where the organization has two teams, and sent him straight to Rookie Advanced Pulaski. After debuting on June 25, the right-handed slugger got off to a predictably slow start for a high schooler getting used to the rigors of everyday professional baseball. Volpe opened with a .125/.275/.232 line over his first 16 games in the Appalachian League, only to turn things around around mid-July. Between July 16-Aug. 5, he produced a .333/.450/.500 line with five extra-base hits, nine walks and four stolen bases over 14 games. That was enough to raise his average to .221 and his OPS to .721.
Right around the time he was getting hot, Volpe developed symptoms he thought were from a sinus infection. He had been playing with what he thought were mild issues while taking a five-day Z-pak, only to go 3-for-17 (.176) with seven strikeouts from Aug. 6-11. With the Z-pak done and the issues persisting, Volpe saw a specialist who diagnosed him with mono, ending his first Minor League season with 17 days still left on the schedule.
Volpe finished with a .215/.349/.355 line over 34 contests. His 15.3 percent walk rate helped make him a league-average player with a 102 wRC+ in the Appy League, but his 25.3 percent strikeout rate wasn't quite consistent with a player who had drawn praise for his quick hands through the zone leading up to the Draft.
"You look at it for what it was and try to figure out what you could have done better," Volpe said. "Mono is no excuse for all things. But even off the field, building a routine like going to bed at a certain time, waking up at a certain time, getting good meals in. At the beginning of the season, I didn't know any better. I was 18 at the time. That's why I was so excited for this year. I had a list of things from last year that I knew worked for me, and when baseball starts back up, I'm really excited to get back to those."
One of the improvements Volpe and the Yankees player-development staff specifically hoped to see him make upon taking the field in 2020 was the way he attacked certain pitches.
"It was a combination of things, starting with timing and comfortability with the game," Volpe said. "But one thing I did see about halfway through my season was in my swing plane, I was losing the barrel. It ended up being a quick fix with our hitting coordinator once I figured it out, and all I had to was use a heavy bat in practice. I started to turn it around I felt like, but [then I] obviously got mono and [it] got cut short. Before that, I was excited to finish out the year strong."
The work on that swing plane continued when Volpe was deemed healthy enough to participate in instructs last September and again in January when he was invited down to the Yankees spring complex early, almost two months before Minor League camp was scheduled to open. That, too, ended prematurely upon the cancellation of Spring Training and even more so during the time of self-quarantine, when Volpe and his roommates (and fellow 2019 picks) Ryder Green and Jacob Sanford were limited to what they could accomplish in their room for two weeks -- cards, video games, movies and a healthy amount of naps.
Now home in New Jersey, Volpe is doing his best to take what the Yankees taught him in the Sunshine State and utilize those lessons while hitting into a net and lifting a small rack of weights he keeps in the garage.
"It was definitely nice, just to get home and see family after everything," he said. "It was also weird being home at this time of year. Looking ahead -- God forbid something like this happens again -- I'm never going to be home again this time of year."
But even in the friendlier confines of his home state, it hasn't been an easy transition to pick up on the brief momentum he built last July and August, particularly when it comes to his work at the plate.
"If you're doing side toss or something, it's easy to have the perfect swing," Volpe said. "You really put that to the test when you're facing a machine or a live pitcher because that's when you can really tell if your swing is holding true to all your drills. Right now, I'm just hammering out the drills, building muscle memory and watching a lot of video from spring and last season to see what I still need to improve."
Keeping things up on defense -- arguably Volpe's best skill at this point in his career -- is another issue.
"Luckily with defense, you can do a lot of ground balls, but you can also do a ton of drills that our infield coach, Miguel Cairo, taught us that take up literally no space," he said. "You can work on your hands. You can work on your first step. Doing that stuff in the space that you do have, there really is no excuse for not working with all the stuff they've given us. At the end of the day, defense is about the little details that a higher level defender would notice that others might not."
About one month ago, Volpe was honing those skills in Tampa at the Yankees' Minor League complex, about one mile down the road from the Major League side at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Now he's doing similar, but a little more limited, work about 40 miles southwest of Yankee Stadium proper. It may not be the road he, Green, Sanford or any of the other Yankees prospects imagined, but if it's the one that leads them to a lifetime in pinstripes, so be it.
"Kind of like how Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, Luis Severino, Tyler Wade, that kind of crew all went through the Minor Leagues together, I think we're all thinking about the same thing," Volpe said. "We're just starting off, but we have the potential to play together for a long time and hopefully making contributions to the Yankees. From that aspect, it's awesome. It's only been one year, but having that bond, going through all the struggles and challenges together, it's awesome for us.
"It's an incredibly unique experience. We definitely got really close, closer than we would have if we were just playing. It became almost a brotherly situation, rather than just being friends, when you're together 24/7 for two weeks. Our relationships grew in those two weeks, and now, we're all looking to take things to the next level together."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.