Growing pains for RiverDogs' Sanchez

Charleston RiverDogs catcher Gary Sanchez is the latest among a recent run of top prospects to play at Riley Park.

Gary Sanchez knew the question was coming, as sure as he expects a fastball upon extending his right index finger while crouched behind the plate.

So, Gary, the New York Yankees sent you back to their Tampa training complex last month for an "attitude adjustment." What's up with that?

He shrugged.

"I don't feel real happy with any part of my game right now," said the Charleston RiverDogs' 18-year-old catcher, the No. 2 prospect in the well-stocked Yankees farm system. "There is not one area I feel good about. I have to work hard on everything."

Sanchez has three million dollars in the bank, the fourth-fattest signing bonus check the Yankees ever signed.

But he has not fared as well as other top Tampa Bay Rays and Yankees prospects who have played for the RiverDogs of the low-Class A South Atlantic League since 2000 (see chart).

Sanchez is batting .245 with eight home runs in 216 at-bats.

That's not the real concern.

The Yankees summoned Sanchez to Tampa apparently after he refused to enter a RiverDogs game as a reserve and, in another incident, declined to warm up a pitcher in the bullpen.

Things seem better.

"Right now he's upbeat," RiverDogs manager Aaron Ledesma said. "He's got more energy. His tempo is better behind the plate. I definitely see an improvement."

It can be a daunting challenge for a rich teen saddled with elite expectations. For $3 million, the Yankees want results and their fans want progress they can track daily while riding in a subway.

Major comparisons

We have seen this drama before as Riley Park has been a showcase for a recent run of some of the best young players in the sport: Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Phil Hughes and Jesus Montero.

Sanchez, 6-2 and 220 pounds, draws particular comparisons to Montero, a Venezuelan catcher now playing for the Yankees' triple-A team in Scranton, Pa. At 18, Montero hit .326 for the RiverDogs with 17 homeru in 2008 and rates as the No. 1 prospect in the organization.

Sanchez, his sister and four brothers were raised by their mother and grandmother. Growing up, his favorite player was Manny Ramirez.

This is his first full professional season. New country. New language.

"When you have high expectations, as high as he had, that can put a lot of pressure on a young player," Ledesma said. "He comes from a place where he's just not used to this. There's got to be this learning curve and I think that's what he's going through. But he seems to enjoy the game and it's just a matter of the little improvements."

Hamilton struggled with drug addiction and problems more sinister than anything Sanchez is facing, but that was after leaving Charleston.

Young was occasionally petulant here but his suspension for tossing a bat toward an umpire came at the triple-A level.

None of the other top Charleston prospects were banished for attitude reasons.

The look back

But give the Yankees credit. They are not messing around with this kid and made no attempt to block my interview request.

"I'd rather not talk about that," Sanchez said when asked about specifics of his most recent trip to Florida.

But …

"Things are better now," he said. "I just have to keep working hard."

Sanchez lives in a West Ashley apartment with a few teammates.

He says he doesn't go out much but likes Charleston.

"The fans are great," he said. "There is a lot of energy in the ballpark."

Today and every day through August, Sanchez hopes to see progress.

"It's all about working hard and trying to get to the next level," he said. "I want to finish strong with good numbers but overall just keep working hard."

Ledesma put it best.

"Let's look back at the end of the season," he said. "If Gary is improving, we have done our job here."

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com