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Gary Sanchez slugs way to forefront of Yankees' youth movement

Once a top prospect, Gary Sanchez's star had dimmed somewhat before this season. But his home run binge in August has established him as a bright and crucial part of the Yankees' rebuild.

Back in 2010, before Gary Sanchez had even cracked prospect lists for the first time, I nicknamed the Yankees' then-17-year-old catcher "Gary the Unicorn;" as I put it then, "He's so wonderfully magical that I don't actually believe he exists, nor that I'll ever set eyes upon him." Coming off a stellar season in the Gulf Coast League, Sanchez—that rarity among prospects, a two-way catcher who could contribute both on offense and defense—seemed unlikely ever to roam the Bronx. Either he'd be switched off the position due to defensive shortcomings, traded elsewhere in a blockbuster for a more established player or fizzle into oblivion, as so many teenage prospects do.

Fast-forward nearly six years, and the 23-year-old Sanchez is suddenly not only in the majors in pinstripes and as a catcher, but he's also reshaping the Yankees' roster as their starting backstop amid a sudden plunge into rebuilding—itself a mythical undertaking given the franchise’s perpetual effort to contend. What’s more, he's tearing up the league. Recalled for good after the team dealt away relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, starter Ivan Nova and rightfielder Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline, Sanchez has bashed eight homers in his last 11 games. On Monday, after being named the AL Player of the Week for hitting four homers in his previous six games, he added two more against the Mariners in Seattle:

For good measure, Sanchez also gunned down a would-be base thief, the fifth time he's done so in 11 games behind the plate. The Unicorn is real, and he's faring far better than his Simpsons namesake.

Including a two-game cup of coffee last October and a token appearance back in May, Sanchez now has eight homers in his first 19 major league games. Via the Play Index, that's the second-highest total in that span behind the Red Sox's George Scott (nine) in 1966; he's tied with the Cubs' Mandy Brooks ('25), the Giants' Dusty Rhodes ('52), the Mariners' Alvin Davis ('84), the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado ('94) and the Rockies' Trevor Story (earlier this year). Sanchez, though, is the only catcher among that group, though two of his homers came while serving as the Yankees' designated hitter.

The Yankees signed Sanchez out of the Dominican Republic back on July 2, 2009, when he was 16 years old. Starting in the spring of 2011, he made the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus Top 100 (or 101) Prospects Lists each spring (except for last year), though he never ranked higher than in that first season, when he was 30th on the former and 29th on the latter. His stock fell due to repeated disciplinary problems that resulted in benchings, concerns about the quality of his defense and the failure of his bat to progress. He was left off the prospect lists in the spring of 2015 after batting a modest .270/.338/.406 in a full season at Double A Trenton, where he had ended '13 and would start '15; never mind the fact that the last of those was still just his age-22 season.

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Chilling reminders of the grim fate of the last hot-hitting Yankees catching prospect, Jesus Montero, no doubt factored into some of those assessments, and even coming into this season, Baseball Prospectus 2016 conceded, "[T]he consensus is simple: bat good; defense bad/apathetic/lazy." On the Yankees' top-10 list, the BP staff graded his arm a 7 (70 on the 20–80 scouting scale, or plus-plus) and noted his sub-1.9 second pop times (how quickly he releases the ball) but reported that his receiving remained "a mixed bag," with his size (6'2", 230 pounds) and thick build contributing to his difficulty in blocking balls.

While Sanchez's offense at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre ( 286/.342/.478 with 16 homers and 32 walks in 459 plate appearances over two seasons) didn't overwhelm anybody, some of that owed to a frigid June (.250/.288/.382) after missing three weeks due to a nondisplaced fracture of his right thumb via a foul ball; he hit .307/.393/.453 in July. What's more, his defense has come around, with Baseball America recently naming him the best defensive catcher in the International League (Montero, now a 26-year-old organizational piece for the Blue Jays, was the DH). Said Billy Eppler, currently the Angels' general manager and previously the Yankees' pro scouting director and assistant GM: "Gary made a huge commitment to making sure he would stay behind the plate when some of that noise from the outside would pop up saying maybe he’s not a catcher."

Earlier this week, Yankees manager Joe Girardi confirmed that going forward, Sanchez would be the team's everyday catcher. Brian McCann, who has started just one game behind the plate since Aug. 5, will now primarily serve as New York's DH, a spot vacated by the trade of Beltran and the release of Alex Rodriguez. Though still an adequate-or-better defender, the 32-year-old McCann has hit just .231/.333/.404 with 16 homers and a 97 OPS+ this year. But with his offensive decline clearly not abating—he's hit for a 99 OPS+ in three seasons in New York, down from 117 in Atlanta—and the Yankees' youth movement in full flower, he's taken the demotion in stride, praising Sanchez's work ethic and ceiling and calling him "a stud … a future All-Star, year in and year out."

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The Yankees explored dealing McCann at the deadline, but the $34 million remaining on his five-year deal—covering 2017 and '18 but not including a '19 vesting option—made that too expensive a proposition for the moment. Still, he’s cleared waivers, and the Braves are known to be interested in bringing him back to mentor a rebuilding squad that will be moving into a new ballpark next year and feeling the pressure to win games. Signs point to the eventuality of a deal, if not by the end of this month then this winter, when budgets and rules for trading are more flexible.

In the meantime, the Yankees, who came out of the deadline with seven top-100 prospects in their system (including the ones they already had), have given Sanchez some age-appropriate company. They're playing prospects Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin regularly and have turned to rookies Chad Green and Luis Cessa in their rotation, all while retaining an outside shot at a playoff spot. That probably won't pan out—through Monday, they're at 2.6%, according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds—but New York now has a much younger squad, with no starter save for the retiring (and now part-time) Mark Teixeira past his age-32 season, and on some days a majority of its lineup is 26 years old or younger.

Sanchez isn’t likely to maintain his current breakneck pace, but he’s already beaten long odds in making it to the majors as a Yankees catcher, and at the forefront of a promising makeover. Who says unicorns aren’t real?