Jerry Sands spent six weeks in an ill-defined realm.
On Aug. 24, word circulated quickly of Sands’ inclusion as one of the five players going from the Dodgers to the Red Sox in the blockbuster deal that shipped the three most expensive Boston contracts to LA. But while the two teams agreed to move the outfielder, a team claimed him on trade waivers, and so he stayed in the Dodgers system for the remainder of the 2012 season.
During that time, he heard ... nothing.
“I really wasn't sure what was going on the day the whole trade happened,” Sands said by phone. “Obviously, the whole world -- ESPN and everybody -- had already named me. I was pretty sure I was traded. I didn't hear anything that day and that night. I woke up the next day, hadn't heard anything, went to the field like every day and tried to figure out what was going on. My manager told me he wasn't 100 percent sure what was going on, and that he was just trying to figure out that day whether I'd be in the lineup that day or not.
“It was pretty crazy. It ended up I was in the lineup, didn't really hear a whole lot else. I tried to pick up from different people what could happen, different scenarios. I was hoping for the best but obviously I wasn't sure what was going on. I think it turned out well. I'm happy to be a Boston Red Sox now.”
There were clues -- aside from the thousands of news reports -- that underscored the fact that he would be changing organizations even before he received official word. For instance, despite the fact that he would have represented a nice bench option for the Dodgers in September, Sands was not called up.
His official transition didn’t occur until Oct. 4, the day after the end of the regular season. It was only then that Sands received a call from Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti informing him that, indeed, he’d be joining the Red Sox.
In many respects, the season-ending trade offered a satisfying conclusion to a year that started in discouraging fashion. Sands was coming off a terrific 2011 season in which he hit .278 with a .344 OBP, a .586 slugging mark and 29 homers in 94 games and .253/.338/.389/.727 with four homers in the big leagues, including a scorching September in which he hit .342/.415/.493/.908 in 20 games.
With that, Sands arrived in spring training with considerable hopes for a meaningful big league role with the Dodgers in 2012, getting into the lineup at times as a corner outfielder and first baseman while also representing a right-handed power-hitting threat off the bench. That plan didn’t come to fruition.
“I came into spring training, I'd done a few things with my swing, a tweak here and there, got off to a rough start, then just kind of couldn't find my groove. It ended up I got sent down to Triple-A,” Sands said. “All the time I was trying to make my way back up, but I was just kind of really figuring out myself, trying to figure out what happened with my swing during spring training. It just kind of never turned into what I wanted it to. The first half I really struggled. I pretty much tweaked my swing the whole entire time. I had changes from day to day, from at-bat to at-bat, just trying to figure out what would get me comfortable and make me successful.”
It took a while -- much longer than Sands or the Dodgers had been hoping. Finally, near the end of a first half in which Sands was hitting .258 with a .345 OBP, .450 slugging mark and .795 OPS for Triple-A Albuquerque, he sat down with members of the Dodgers organization who suggested he forget about his difficult start to 2012 and just focus on finding returning to the same comfortable swing that had produced the results that had him on a prospect track.
Sands worked with Albuquerque hitting coach John Valentin, the former Red Sox infielder who just accepted a post as the Dodgers’ big league assistant hitting coach.
(“He's intense when he coaches. He's intense about the game,” Sands said of Valentin. “Off the field, he's a great guy that kind of settles down a little bit, but he's one of those guys that comes across like he's there to play, there to win. That's how he coaches. Sometimes it goes a little bit the wrong way with some people, but if you understand how he played and how he approaches the game, you adapt to him a little bit. But I enjoyed him. I learned a lot from him.”)
The two found an approach that once again worked for the prospect.
“I kind of went back to an older swing I had the last few years. Once I got comfortable, things just kind of clicked,” Sands said. “I was able to recognize pitches a little better. I was able to adapt within at-bats to change my approach to the at-bats and adjust. It just kind of clicked for the rest of the year. I ended up turning my season around and having a pretty good one. There was a lot of ups and downs, but I think I'm better for it.”
One of the key adjustments made by Sands with Valentin was a focus on attacking the fastball. Sands’ emphasis on pitch recognition and discipline had put him in a position where he was letting the ball get too deep at times, thus allowing him to be beaten with fastballs.
“This year, if we really concentrated on one thing, it was how to get to the fastball better, kind of shorten up my swing, not try to do too much, just get the barrel there and let everything else work,” Sands said.
The adjustments paid dramatic dividends. Sands enjoyed a torrid second half, hitting .354/.422/.635/1.058 with 14 homers in the second half, and his strikeout rate dropped from 21.5 percent of his plate appearances in the first half to 18.4 percent in the second half.
Sands has a history of sustained hot streaks. This was one of them.
“When he gets hot, he gets really hot, and whatever they pitch, he'll hit it,” said Red Sox infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr., who played with Sands in Triple-A the last two years. “He has unbelievable power all over the field. Most of his home runs are to right-center, right field. But he's just one of those hitters that, if a pitcher makes a mistake, he's going to kill you.”
The net result of the struggles that Sands endured and the adjustments that he made is that he feels like a better hitter who is better prepared to help in the big leagues.
“I'm definitely mentally stronger from this whole last season, having the opportunity to play in the big leagues and then seeing that go down the drain, then having to really struggle in Triple-A when I knew I could compete and I knew that I was a better player than I was showing,” Sands said. “Things I went through while I was struggling, learning how to get to the fastball a lot better, it showed in the second half when I kind of developed that into my new swing, working on my hands and getting short to the ball and going to the fastball better. Just some small things i had to work on, drills I had to work on while I was struggling, that I plugged into my old swing. I would say I'm a much better hitter.”
Those adjustments, Sands hope, will permit him to make an impact with the Red Sox. From the moment of his mention in the deal that shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to LA, the 25-year-old’s enthusiasm for a new venue began to grow, particularly given what he heard from his hitting coach.
“I talked to Val briefly. He loves to talk about his glory days in Boston,” Sands mused. “When the whole trade and everything happened, and it turned out, 'Oh, you're going to be a player to be named later,' he talked with me a few times about how it was awesome, the Green Monster, Fenway, the fans, the whole atmosphere and everything.”
For the Sox, Sands was hardly a centerpiece of the deal (pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster were the two headliners), but the Sox were interested in the outfielder/first baseman as an intriguing lottery ticket. His raw power is fairly prodigious. Given his past high strikeout rates, it’s far from a given that the skill will translate to the majors, but if he can maintain the swing that he had in the second half, there’s a chance for him to become a meaningful contributor in Boston.
“His swing early in the year was a mess. It's much better now,” said one NL talent evaluator. “He's obviously put up ridiculous numbers in the minor leagues, especially the power. His swing and bat will play well up there. I think maybe it's a good fit for Boston. He can run, he can throw and he has power.
“Can he handle pitching at the big league level? If you can stay inside and get above his hands, you can beat him. That's the way it is for a lot of young hitters,” the evaluator continued. “But if he gets the right opportunity, maybe the right hitting coach and it clicks, he has big-time raw power. He has a high ceiling. He’s a great guy to get in this deal with the two pitchers.”
It remains to be seen what kind of opportunity he gets in Boston, but he’s well aware of the fact that the Red Sox currently have vacancies at first base, left field and right field -- the three positions that he plays. Given that Sands has excellent numbers against left-handed pitching in a relatively brief big league sample -- a .316/.372/.532/.904 line in 86 plate appearances -- he recognizes that he’s gone from an organization with an outfield logjam to one where there are numerous possibilities.
Since the trade became official on Oct. 4, he’s had little interaction with the Sox to discuss a potential role. But everything he knows has contributed to building excitement.
“To see the Boston Red Sox, who are one of the famed organizations -- you can't really think of baseball without thinking of Boston in the same sentence,” Sands said. “It's exciting that all three positions that I play, there's not a definite one as of right now. Opportunity-wise, I'm looking forward to it. It's a little bit of fuel for my tank to keep working hard and trying to win a position next year.
“I talked to [GM Ben Cherington] and that's all I really needed to hear,” he added. “He told me there are opportunities and that nothing is going to be given to me. I didn't expect anything less. He said he was excited to have me and I was excited to be there. Off we went. There wasn't a whole lot he could really tell me or that I could tell him, I don't think. They traded for me. We got some good players. We had to give away some good players. They're giving me an opportunity to play and I'm looking forward to it.”