(As it appeared in the Charlotte Observer)
FORT MILL Watching the Charlotte Knights’ batting practice, the most enthusiastic player is almost always Carlos Sanchez.
He’s not the hitter, he’s the second baseman fielding grounders and turning double plays, and, at 20, he is the youngest player in the International League.
Class AAA baseball teams have the most age-diverse rosters in all the minors. The average age of a player in this level is a touch older than 28, since lineups often are littered with players clinging to their last hopes of making a major league roster.
Scattered among those grizzled veterans are a few young up-and-comers like Sanchez, who isn’t even allowed to legally drink for another 15 days.
He signed with the White Sox during May 2009 out of Maracay, Venezuela, as an international free agent. Although he’s the youngest player to reach the highest level of the minors, he didn’t have his first full season of baseball until last year.
For various reasons, Sanchez never played in spring training until 2012. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League and another at Class A Kannapolis before he made his first appearance in Glendale, Ariz., for spring training.
“It’s a little different getting used to playing every day,” Sanchez said through a translator.
“I created a different routine that’s helped me no matter where I am, where I’m playing, to keep working hard every day.”
Work ethic admirable
That work ethic was part of the reason his managers rave about him.
“He’s what you’re looking for in a young player,” said Knights manager Joel Skinner. “He has a lot of energy, he plays in the middle of the field (shortstop and second base), and he’s a switch-hitter.”
With smooth footwork, soft hands and a strong arm, Sanchez always has been a sterling fielder, according to scouts. He looks up to fellow Venezuelan switch-hitter Omar Vizquel, and his Class A Winston-Salem Dash manager Tommy Thompson compared him to Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar Jr. because of the ease with which fields.
“He makes the normal play and extraordinary play look simple,” Thompson said.
His glove has never been in question, but Sanchez took a big step forward in his first full season of baseball when he showed how complete his overall game is.
Starting the 2012 season in Winston-Salem, he hit .315 with a .374 on-base percentage and earned a spot on the Major League Baseball All-Star Futures team alongside Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez and Jean Segura, all of whom already have made their marks in the majors.
Learning to run
Perhaps the most important thing he worked on in Winston-Salem was base running.
“Last year was actually the first time I really emphasized a lot of working on” base running, he said, “and it paid off.”
In 2011, Sanchez was 8-for-18 on stolen-base attempts, so Thompson worked with him throughout the 2012 season on leads, jumps and deciding when to steal.
The result? Sanchez leveraged his above-average speed into 26 steals – in a more efficient 41 attempts. Even more impressive was that he led the Arizona Fall League that year in steals over Reds farmhand Billy Hamilton, who has stolen 258 bases over the past two seasons.
Just a week after going 1-for-2 with a double and a run in the Futures Game, Sanchez was called up to Class AA Birmingham. After tearing through Birmingham, hitting .370 with a .424 on-base plus slugging percentage, he was called up to Charlotte for a playoff run exactly one month after his first promotion of the season.
“It was fun, and it was important for me to get that experience,” he said. “It was the first playoff I ever had in the United States, and it helped me get that experience for this year. When I came here I had already been here a little before.”
After his quick rise from Class A to Class AAA in one season, Sanchez was named the White Sox’s third-best prospect by Baseball America. The magazine even has him rated as the best hitter for average and best defensive infielder in the system.
Although he only has a .297 on-base percentage this season, he has 23 steals in 36 attempts. He’s holding his own in a league in which the average pitcher is eight years older.
With White Sox second basemen Gordon Beckham and Jeff Keppinger struggling to a combined .246 average and .262 on-base percentage, Sanchez soon might become the fifth-youngest major leaguer instead of the youngest player in Class AAA. He would be the youngest White Sox player since Jon Garland in 2000.
“I’ve been coaching for 30 years,” said Thompson, “and when you get a guy like him, you want to hang on to him. But he deserves to play at the next level. If he gets called up, he’ll never go back down.”
Also check out my back and forth with ASChin about whether or not the Bobcats should trade for DeMarcus Cousins.