TAMPA, Fla.—A position change is never easy. The transition to catcher, however, is among a ballplayer’s most arduous undertakings.
That’s the mission at hand for the Yankees’ Donny Sands, drafted as a third baseman out of high school in Tucson, Ariz., in the eighth round of the 2015 draft.
He’d never played the position as an amateur, but the Yankees’ player development staff saw something in Sands this offseason that made them think he’d fit nicely behind the plate.
“They told me the hands, the footwork, (potentially being) a catcher that can hit, the leadership, being bilingual, the communication, everything,” Sands said, listing reasons why the Yankees thought he was an attractive candidate for a position change.
They brought the idea to him at this offseason’s Captain’s Camp, the second annual gathering of the Yankees best prospects and big leaguers as a sort of seminar on life as a professional.
Rob Refsnyder, Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks were among the this year’s instructors, and Sands, shortstop Jorge Mateo, righthander James Kaprielian, first baseman Chris Gittens and outfielder Trey Amburgey were among the students.
And of course, it wouldn’t truly be a Captain’s Camp without an appearance from Derek Jeter.
“He took us out to dinner toward the end of the camp,” Sands said. “He took us to Fleming’s (a steakhouse near the Yankees’ minor league complex), so it was pretty crazy.”
Sands started working on moving behind the plate during the offseason, and it’s meant a lot of extra work. He gets to the fields at before dawn to work with Julio Mosquera, who serves as his manager in the GCL and recently was the team’s organizational catching instructor.
“(Mosquera) is awesome. We’ve had a lot of 5 a.m. workouts here way before anyone else is here,” he said. “He’s non-stop, all the time on me. It’s just awesome.”
The work, done mostly in the intense Florida heat and humidity, is taxing. But it’s the little moments that make all the sweat and drills and repetitions worth it. Whether it’s a block on a ball in the dirt, a successfully framed pitch or a runner thrown out stealing, the little moments are huge rewards.
“The first time I threw out a guy, we had worked out at 5 in the morning on footwork, footwork, footwork,” he said. “And the first time, it just clicked. That’s when I started feeling like, ‘This is starting to pay off.”
Beyond learning the ropes at his new position, he’s also got to balance continuing to polish the bat the Yankees believed in when they drafted him last June. So far, he’s hitting .273/.304/.341 in abbreviated action this season.
Even so, he admits that the work put in moving behind the plate has taken a toll on his work with the bat.
“It’s pretty tough. I struggled with that especially in spring training. I didn’t really have my legs under me,” he said. “It was tough for me because I really, really like to hit. That’s my thing, I love it. Obviously it was tough, but it was a good thing to go through.”
For now, Sands will keep grinding, keep waking up before dawn to meet with his manager for more drills and keep putting his lessons to work in games. If it all clicks and the defense and offense can come together as one, he’ll have raised his prospect profile significantly and given the Yankees another option in their search for a homegrown, offensive-minded backstop.
Nelson Gomez was signed as part of the Yankees’ haul during the 2014 international signing period. Lauded for his power bat, he was awarded a signing bonus of $2.25 million.
He ranked No. 6 among that year’s international prospects, and rewarded the Yankees by leading the Dominican Summer League in home runs with 11, the most since the Rays’ Manny Sanchez hit 13 two seasons prior.
Now in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, he entered Tuesday’s action against the Braves with five more home runs. He finished the day with six, swatting a bomb in the bottom of the ninth to give his team a walk-off victory. He’s tied for second in the league with the Phillies’ Jhailyn Ortiz.
“I feel really proud,” Gomez said, with the help of teammate Donny Sands. “I always try to do my best.”
Even with the power showing, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Gomez is hitting just .179/.256/.411 and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 33-to-5. Scouts who saw him on the international showcase circuit before he signed praised Gomez for his strike-zone discipline and ability to recognize breaking pitches in addition, of course, to his at least plus raw power.
Gomez signed as a third baseman and remains at the position so far, but evaluators also suggested that he might wind up moving to either first base or left field, where his bigger body might fit better.
Still, as a player who grew up wanting to model his game after Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera, he’s working hard to improve himself enough to stay at the position long-term.
“I always work on everything,” he said. “Hitting, defense, weight training, physical conditioning, everything.”
He’s worked hard, starting in spring training, then in extended spring training after camp broke and now in the GCL, to make himself a better ballplayer. There’s about a month remaining in the season, but he still has a lot he’d like to accomplish before the books close on 2016.
To do that, he knows he’ll still have to put in time and effort before he sees the results he wants.
“I just want to keep working hard every day,” he said, “and finish strong.”