Yankees, Jeter want Katoh to be a leader

Riverdogs second baseman Gosuke Katoh is back with the team for a second year. (Brad Nettles/Staff) 4/7/15

It’s not unusual for top young draft picks to return to the Class A South Atlantic League for a second year of seasoning. Charleston RiverDogs second baseman Gosuke Katoh fully grasps the need to demonstrate improvement, from performance to diet to taking Derek Jeter seriously.

He looks like a different player. There is more muscle and bulk on his 6-2 frame after an offseason of workouts and meal planning.

Katoh (GOES-kay kuh-TOE) gets that the New York Yankees want a more aggressive hitting approach from their 2013 second-round draft pick.

The 20-year-old Californian pulled a home run to right field in batting practice Monday, quite a clout for a guy who hit only .222 with three homers last year in Charleston.

Manager Luis Dorante was the batting practice pitcher, helping the RiverDogs prepare for Thursday’s Opening Night game at The Joe against Lexington, when Katoh’s blast flew over the fence toward the Ashley River.

“That’s the Katoh we want out there on a daily basis,” Dorante said of the RiverDogs’ primary second baseman.

For good measure, Katoh also talks differently.

“I’m going to really try to produce winners in this clubhouse,” he said, “and personally I’d just like to get better in every aspect of the game: hitting, defense, baserunning, whatever.

“I just want to lead this team to the Sally League championship.”

What?

Winning?

Minor league baseball, often to the irritation of fans, isn’t about winning. It’s supposed to be about player development. Winning is a luxury, rarely a goal.

But they talked about winning at the Yankees’ spring training headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Gary Denbo, the team’s new vice-president of player development, gathered selected players for a Captain’s Camp.

One of the featured speakers was Jeter, the former Yankees captain/ultimate clubhouse leader. He told the prospects about his days in the South Atlantic League, when he took charge of the Greensboro Hornets while only a teen.

“He really pushed us to be the leaders of our affiliates and, one day, the leaders of the big-league team,” Katoh said.

Katoh was wide-eyed.

But the leadership role fits.

“Hard work and dedication have always been part of my game,” Katoh said. “There have always been five tools in baseball (hitting, hitting with power, throwing, fielding and running) but I like to say there’s a sixth, and that’s the make-up part. That’s a thing I want to excel at and be better at than everyone else.”

Katoh has rubbed shoulders with big baseball names before. He moved to Rancho Bernardo, Calif., from Japan as a 6-year-old when his father Daizo received a Sony promotion. Baseball helped Katoh make friends in his adopted hometown north of San Diego, and Ichiro Suzuki quickly became his favorite player. When Katoh signed with the Yankees, turning down UCLA for the $845,700 draft slot value, the club helped arrange a meeting between Katoh and Suzuki, then a Yankees outfielder.

A handshake led to an invitation from Suzuki for Katoh to spend two weeks of his first professional off-season working out in Japan.

Plates full of mom’s rice and potatoes were among the highlights of Katoh’s most recent offseason. They “did wonders,” he said of the Yankees-recommended starches, after a taxing 2014 season. Katoh lost weight and strength in the sweltering summer heat.

This time, body and mind are ready to last into September. If not, Katoh welcomes criticism.

“Everyone is a captain on this team,” he said. “If I’m doing something wrong, I want somebody to tell me to clean it up and do it right. And I’m going to be on people; that’s kind of how we get better as a team.”

It’s the Derek Jeter way to minor league progress, via Ichiro, aggressive swings and a starchy diet.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff