WENDELL, N.C. — In today’s baseball-speak, when you’re hitting the ball hard, you’re raking.
But former Catawba hero Jerry Sands was doing some old-school raking — with a garden implement — when he got the word that he’d been swapped by the Boston Red Sox to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Sands, who was traded to Boston last August by the Los Angeles Dodgers, the organization that drafted him, never even got to take a swing in cozy Fenway Park.
“It was kind of crazy,” Sands said. “I was working in the yard at our house in Wendell in late December, getting up some leaves, and I got a text message from one of the Boston sportswriters I met when I was traded to the Red Sox. The text asked me what I thought about going to the Pirates. I had no idea because it was the first I’d heard of it. Then I went and looked it up on the Internet.”
It was an unsual Christmas present for Sands, to say the least, but there it was on the Web, a dozen or so bloggers weighing in on a major trade in which the Red Sox acquired closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates. One of the key pieces headed to the Pirates in that deal was Sands, a right-handed slugger who may finally get his chance to compete for an everyday job in the majors.
“Jerry has impressed our scouts with his well-round tools package, highlighted by his ability to command the strike zone as a hitter and drive the ball for extra-base hit potential,” Pittsburg general manager Neal Huntington told MLB.com. “Additionally, his defensive versatility will increase his opportunity to contribute in the near term as well as in the years to come.”
When he was a Catawba Indian (2006-08), Sands belted the longest homers anyone had ever seen in quite a few Division II venues.
He made Catawba’s Newman Park look way too small, driving balls into and over the trees behind the fences, while playing superb defense in left or right field.
Long-time Catawba coach Jim Gantt said Sands had more power than anyone he’d ever had in the lineup, and the stat sheet agreed with him. Sands hit 61 homers in his three seasons, the most in program history.
As a junior All-American in 2008, Sands drove in a school-record 85 runs in 61 games. He also piled up a record 132 career walks.
Sands lasted until the 25th round of the draft, but he made the Dodgers look like geniuses. In 2010, he hit 35 homers in Class A and Double A and emerged as the Dodgers’ top power prospect.
In 2011, he hit 29 homers in Triple A and got two looks from the big league club.
He got only a glance from L.A. in 2012 when he hit .296, walloped 26 homers and drove in 107 runs for Triple A Albuquerque.
L.A. has elected to stock its lineup with high-salaried veterans, so Sands welcomed the move to Boston.
“I went up to Boston for the first time to take my physicals and I had a chance to walk around Fenway Park and look at everything,” Sands said. “It would’ve been cool to play there, but now I’m very excited about the Pirates. This is a great opportunity with a young team. They don’t have a lot of big-salary guys on the roster.”
Sands’ versatility is an asset. He can play major-league defense at first base and left or right field, but there’s plenty of competition.
Garrett Jones, a lefty swinger, will play a lot at first base or right. Top prospect Starling Marte will get the first crack at left field. Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley are young players with big-league experience. Like Sands, they are trying to prove they’re everyday guys.
“It would be nice to get regular at-bats and see what happens, but they don’t just give you 400 at-bats,” Sands said. “You have to do well in 100 at-bats. Then you earn more at-bats and build on it.”
Sands plans to head to spring training in Bradenton, Fla., at least a week early.
“I’m not saying this year is now or never for me, but I’m 25, and it’s time to show that I can do it at the major-league level,” Sands said.