For a young man who won’t turn 19 until Friday, it feels like catching prospect Gary Sanchez has been in the Yankee organization for a while. Sanchez burst onto the scene as a 17 year-old in rookie ball, tearing up the league with a .353/.419/.597 line, drawing raves for his power and hitting ability. He was named the #30 prospect in all of the minor leagues by Baseball America after his 2010 season, an impressive ranking for a teenager who had yet to play in full season ball. With Jesus Montero‘s defensive ability in question, it wasn’t too hard to envision Sanchez as the Yankees’ catcher of the future.
Sanchez’s great 2010 debut was not without its warts, however. Reports on his defense were mixed, as he gave up 16 passed balls and threw out 26 percent of runners attempting to steal. However, many prognosticators believed that Sanchez had the defensive tools to become a solid defensive catcher, and were not too worried about his future behind the plate.
In 2011, things were not as rosy as the teenage phenom began the season with the low-A Charleston Riverdogs. As Sanchez graduated to the higher level, he began to face tougher pitching, and it was no longer as easy for him to succeed. He got off to a slow start, striking out at sky-high rates, showing little power, and hitting well below his 2010 level. Sanchez began the season with a pitiful .549 OPS in March and April. His frustration began to manifest itself on the field and in the clubhouse, as he allowed a ridiculous 26 passed balls on the season, and was disciplined for maturity issues. Sanchez’s stock began to fall among many of the same prospect rankers who ranked him so aggressively initially. Reports mentioned that Sanchez’s defense was regressing, with someone (Kevin Goldstein, I think?) referring to his defense as a 20 on the scouting scale (the lowest grade).
Near the end of the season, a light went on for Sanchez, and suddenly he began to mash. In August, Sanchez turned on #beastmode, crushing 7 homers in 9 games, en route to a 1.647 OPS. Of course, shortly after I wrote a post describing Sanchez’s breakout, he went down with a broken finger on August 13, which would sideline him for the remainder of the season. After getting off to a terrible start, the final line of .256/.335/.485 with 17 homers was pretty solid for an 18 year-old catcher in full season ball. The end of season hot streak was encouraging, but likely not enough to erase the doubts raised about Sanchez’s maturity, defense, and ability to make consistent contact (since he fanned over 27 percent of the time).
With a disappointing 2011 under his belt, Sanchez will have a chance to go somewhat under the radar in 2012 to regain his status as an elite prospect in the minors. 2012 will be an important crossroads season for him, as he will have the opportunity to prove that he has outgrown the maturity problems that plagued him this season, and that he has worked to fulfill his defensive potential. On the other hand, if he continues to struggle behind the plate and get into trouble with his manager, Sanchez could further confirm the doubters who question whether Sanchez’s immaturity will prevent him from maximizing his scintillating potential. It is perhaps premature to consider this a make-or-break year given Sanchez’s youth (he’ll presumably start in high-A at age 19). But if he is going to regain the elite prospect status he had after 2010, a strong, steady 2012 season would go a long way toward silencing the doubters, as well as giving the Yankees hope that they may have another star catching prospect rising in the minors.