TAMPA, Fla. — What can Gary Sanchez possibly have in store for an encore?
It is a good question, one that has been on the minds of Yankees fans all winter and will continue to be asked throughout spring training.
But good luck trying to get anyone to say.
“I’m not the guy that predicts things,” shortstop Didi Gregorius said with a smile yesterday after calling Sanchez’s smash debut in the last two months of 2016 “unbelievable.”
Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo also smiled. “To accomplish what he did in the time that he was in the major leagues last year, I don’t know that anybody could predict that. I don’t know how you could because nobody’s ever done it before,” Denbo said. “To say that he could do better, that would be difficult to say. But to say that he has a chance to be an All-Star-type player over the course of his career . . . I think is not that difficult to say.”
Sanchez, 24, arrived at the club’s minor-league complex earlier this week. He has been taking batting practice and working with some of the pitchers who arrived before Monday’s report day for pitchers and catchers.
He described himself as needing a break after the whirlwind end to last season, when his .299/.376/.657 slash line, 20 homers and 42 RBIs in 53 games nearly won him AL Rookie of the Year honors. He didn’t take all that much time off, though.
“I actually needed some rest first,” he said through a translator. “After that, I started to work and get ready for the season.”
He said he doesn’t “feel any pressure” to duplicate what he did a season ago. That’s a good thing, because what the rookie did was unprecedented.
Sanchez went 0-for-4 against Chris Sale on May 13, went to the minors and actually didn’t hit a home run in his first five games after being recalled Aug. 3. Then he hit 19 homers and drove in 35 runs in a 37-game stretch in which he posted an almost surreal .357/.433/.811 slash line, all while consistently gunning down runners with an arm scouts had been raving about since his early days in the minors.
In a 10-game stretch in August, he hit nine home runs and drove in 15 runs. In a four-game stretch in September, he hit five home runs and drove in 11 runs.
Sanchez’s final numbers would have looked even more staggering had there not been a mini-slump to end the season, a 2-for-29 stretch that left him with a .069/.152/.172 slash line in his final eight games.
“My mentality is I’m just going out there to do what I do, which is play baseball,” he said of living up to the standard he set last year.
And yes, he sees room for improvement.
“That’s why I’m working very hard, to be better,” Sanchez said. “I can work on both sides of the plate.”
Sanchez, of course, quickly became the face of the franchise’s shift toward young, athletic talent (Greg Bird and Luis Severino, who had successful debuts in 2015, also are a significant part of that shift).
The club’s minor-league system, which Denbo oversees, is stuffed with talent, a process that began several years ago but was aided by the deals at the 2016 trade deadline that acquired touted prospects such as Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield. Those names bolstered a system that already included top homegrown prospects such as James Kaprielian, Chance Adams and Jorge Mateo.
Which raises another question: Who in the system might be this year’s Sanchez?
“Good question,” Denbo said. “I don’t know who that guy’s going to be, but I like the fact that we have several that come to mind when you ask that question. We have a lot of guys that I believe will help us compete for championships in the next several years, and it’s a good line. We’ve got them all from rookie ball to Triple-A, so we’re very proud of the players we have in the organization and excited about the prospects of them helping us in the major leagues.”