TAMPA, Fla. -- By now, this was supposed to be Gary Sanchez's team.
You remember Gary, right?
Of course you do. You have to. How could you forget the New York Yankees' 25-year-old, up-and-coming slugger with the dazzling right arm?
But in case you need a refresher, maybe the current face of the team, the feared yet perpetually smiling Aaron Judge, can help: “He’s an All-Star catcher for our team. You can’t overlook that at all.”
Need more? How about it, CC Sabathia? “Sanchez is probably the best hitter in the [Yankees’] lineup.
"We don’t talk about him at all.”
Right there is perhaps the strangest truth about the March 2018 Yankees. This ferocious power hitter -- a man who uncorked 20 home runs in 53 games as a rookie and followed that with a 33-homer season last year -- doesn’t get talked about. Even his teammates realize that he is flying under the radar.
Thanks to Judge’s out-of-nowhere Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017 -- which culminated with his 52 homers and a forthcoming video game cover -- and thanks to this offseason’s Big Apple arrival of the $325 million man, Giancarlo Stanton, Sanchez has become the forgotten man.
Maybe it’s because Stanton's and Judge’s similarly massive, towering presences make them more intriguing stories. Or perhaps it’s because of a general fascination with the mammoth blasts with high exit velocities that the imposing pair hit in their respective leagues last season.
Regardless of why the spotlight has been comparatively dim on Sanchez this year, the Yankees wouldn’t mind if opposing teams do the unlikely and treat him the same way once the season begins.
“Gary, for me, he’s one of the most gifted hitters I’ve played with, and I’ve played with some pretty decent ones, as you know,” 11-year veteran Brett Gardner said.
The Sanchez superlatives don’t end there.
“He reminds me of a young Manny Ramirez,” said Sabathia, the 37-year-old Yankees starter who came up in the Indians organization as Ramirez starred in Cleveland. “That’s enough said right there, I guess, right?”
Last spring training, Sanchez had several throughout the organization considering him the soon-to-be top dog of a group of Baby Bronx Bombers who appeared well on their way to extended success. His leadership qualities were praised then, and they continue to be.
Sanchez is getting the same bonus points for how he handles pitchers and calls games. He has even been credited lately for how he has blocked pitches in the dirt, a part of his game that former Yankees manager Joe Girardi voiced displeasure with at times last season.
“Love what I’m seeing from him,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Right now, he’s in a great frame of mind mentally. The program he’s on, the work he’s doing, the quality of his work day in and day out has been excellent, and I feel like it’s shown up in games.”
Sanchez has his own leadership style that can keep his profile low.
“Just quiet, goes about his business, does his work,” Judge said. “He just stays himself. That hasn’t changed from when I first met him in the minor leagues.”
Sanchez -- or rather, his bat -- did get loud once earlier this spring. With Judge making headlines ahead of his first spring training start last Wednesday, Sanchez quickly stole the attention when he launched a first-inning, two-run home run that still has teammates and coaches talking.
The line drive kept climbing once it left the field. The ball came down only after it cleared the tall scoreboard several dozen feet behind the left-field fence. It was a home run reminiscent of Stanton's and Judge’s bruising blasts.
“Unreal. That thing barely got off the ground,” pitcher Justus Sheffield said this week. “That was crazy. He crushed that thing. I was shocked. But that’s Gary, though. He does that.”
Judge, who went into the clubhouse to take a few swings, looked up at a television when he heard the crack of the bat.
“That was loud,” he said.
Even if the rest of the baseball world has forgotten about Sanchez, Boone doesn’t believe opposing pitchers will.
“Anyone that comes up against us understands who he is when he gets in that box, and the respect is very much there,” Boone said. “Hopefully he’ll benefit from guys being on base. And with our lineup, and with Giancarlo and Judgey, he’s going to walk up there with guys on base a lot, and that’s where he’s going to see the benefit.”