Drafted as a third baseman in the 8th round of the 2015 draft, Sands was informed of his move to behind the plate during the Yankees’ Captain’s Camp. Held in January and February earlier this year, the event was attended by 20 Yankees prospects and is designed to teach leadership skills and developing a team-first attitude.
Former Yankees-great Derek Jeter surprised the young players during the camp’s last week by treating them to dinner, answering questions and providing stories of his time as a minor league player. With that experience, it should come as no surprise that Sands believes those qualities are part of why the organization decided to move him.
“I guess they saw tools and leadership,” Sands told PinstripesPlus. “The arm strength and hands forward, I’m just a hard worker with a good work ethic and I think that’s what played into it.”
Position changes aren’t uncommon for those in the minors. They happen for a number of reasons, including player skillsets and positional depth issues. But outside of pitcher, catcher is considered to be the hardest defensive position, and moving a prospect there is rare. Learning to play it could be a daunting task, but the 20-year-old Sands was ready as soon as the Yankees told him.
“I was excited, man. The opportunity, just looking at the future, I was excited to help the Yankees farm system in any way I could.”
His manager at Pulaski, Tony Franklin, is a man who played 10 years in the minor leagues and has now managed for 20. Even then, the former infielder is still amazed with the level of skill it takes to be a catcher.
“It’s a tough position,” Franklin said. “The toughest thing, physically, is to block baseballs. I don’t know how they do it half the time, because they’ve got 92 to 94 MPH fastballs and they’ve got to block them. That takes something special. I don’t know how guys do that and I can’t imagine myself doing that. But that’s really difficult to do.”
For Sands, the transition has been as hard as expected.
“I think everything has come the hardest,” Sands admitted. “It’s a new position, as a whole it’s pretty tough back there.”
His promotion from the Gulf Coast League up to Pulaski on August 4, however, is a promising sign of how far he’s come.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Franklin claimed. “Donny’s new to the catching position but since I’ve seen him here in the last couple of days, he’s made a lot of progress defensively at his position. It’s a difficult transition to make from the infield to catcher, but he seems to be handling it good and I like the progress he’s made.”
That progress has already been evident on the field. While Sands said that receiving has come the easiest for him, he had already thrown out two runners in his first three games with Pulaski, and Franklin is pleased with other aspects of his defense as well.
“I think he calls a pretty good game from the games I’ve seen him call,” he said. “I’m pretty pleased with that and I think that’s going to improve as he evolves his game.”
With his catching skills seemingly coming along, the question that remains is how his offensive production will be affected. Sands was more than comfortable with his bat in his rookie year, hitting .309/.395/.361 through 55 games in combined time in Single-A Charleston and the Gulf Coast League. Being a catcher, however, comes with less time practicing your hitting. Though some catchers manage to still be productive offensive threats, it is hard to balance your defensive duties with being able to hit.
“Oh yeah it’s tough, definitely really tough,” Sands said. “Now I give catchers a lot of credit for being able to hit. Catchers don’t really get a lot of time to hit. You don’t really have your legs on you when you’ve been catching all day too].”
Franklin seems mostly unconcerned with the notion.
“Even if his hitting will be affected by the catching position I don’t see it happening yet,” he explained. “Hitters are hitters, they’re gonna hit. And that’s the way it is. Donny came in as a hitter and I think that’s one of the reasons they made the switch, having a guy with a bat like he does who can handle the catching duties, that’s two pretty good skills.”
In fact, Sands’ offensive ability is Franklin’s favorite part about his game.
“You can see the focus he has when he’s out there to hit. I think the offensive side of the game comes pretty naturally to him. The game doesn’t seem to faze him. He’s always been a pretty good hitter from what I’ve seen. He’s a pretty good baseball player.”
As for whether Sands can keep up his offensive production and still stay catcher long-term, Franklin won’t make any guarantees, but isn’t worrying about it.
“Don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Franklin with a laugh. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. You’d like to think you know. But I don’t see that as a problem. They’re young guys. I mean, there are a few catchers in the big leagues who are hitting pretty good. I don’t think his offense is going to suffer. I don’t think that’s something we need to worry about.”
For now, though, Sands wants to take it day-by-day. With more work to do in his evolution as a catcher, daily improvement will be his focus.
“I think that every day you get better, and there’s a lot of great people here who have been helping me,” he said. “I think every day I’ve progressed in some aspect and hopefully I never go back. Every day I’m focused on getting better that day.”
When asked what he wants to improve on, the answer sheds light on why he was chosen for an event like Captain’s Camp.
“Everything. Everything possible,” Sands said. “From the little things in baseball which people don’t see, like being on time, being a good teammate, being accountable, being a leader, and in baseball like catching and hitting, paying attention to the game and being a student of the game, helping other people when I’m not in the game, just being better as a whole.”
That’s a lot of weight to shoulder, and Sands’ development still has a ways to go. But should it all come together, Franklin likes what he can become.
“Donny’s working really hard to take the punishment that goes with that position, but of course that’s a process,” Franklin said. “So it’s a matter of continuing to go through the process of catching skills. He’s pretty focused when he steps out onto the field and he handles himself well out there. We think we’ve got a pretty good player once he matures behind the plate.”