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Mariners prospect Axel Sánchez is poised for success

The young shortstop has taken the opportunities he’s been given by the organization and run with them

Axel Sánchez, seen here without the curly mop of hair he sported at Modesto last year (he cut it short when he saw Julio had also cut his short)
Kate Preusser

During the 2019 international signing period, the Mariners inked a pair of prospects out of the Mejia Top 10 Baseball Academy, a well-regarded training academy nestled in among the various team complexes in Boca Chica, and only about a mile from the Mariners’ complex as the crow flies. At the time, most of the attention was focused on outfielder Carlos Jimenez (pictured below, right), who received the fourth-highest bonus in the class.

The player on the left is Jimenez’s academy-mate and now his professional organization-mate, shortstop Axel Sánchez, who received a smaller bonus and subsequently less attention from prospect writers at time of signing. But when the Luis Castillo trade opened up a spot for a shortstop at Modesto this past season, Sánchez seized on the opportunity to make his mark and impress the Mariners—a theme that’s continued this spring training.

Sánchez hails from Santiago, the second-biggest city in the DR. At the age of just nine years old, he was scouted by Aquilles Medinas, whom Sánchez describes as a father figure, while playing for his local team; “he saw my energy,” the bubbly Sánchez says proudly. He switched to train full-time at Mejia Top 10 at age 13, and played well enough to draw the attention of several teams, among them the Nationals, Angels, and Rangers—whose complex is just across the road from Mejia—as well as the Mariners. Ultimately, Sánchez chose to sign with Seattle, not only because of the competitiveness of their offer, but also because Mejia Top 10—like Sánchez’s own parents, a chauffeur and a homemaker—stresses the importance of education and developing as a person as well as a player, a theme that’s also very common in the Mariners’ academy. For Sánchez, who possesses immense curiosity about the world and always wants to learn, it was an easy choice.

It was also an easy choice because he saw the opportunities for a middle infielder in Seattle’s system (at the time, phenom Felnin Celesten was three years away from being eligible to sign). At Mejia, Sánchez was given the nickname “La Escoba”—“The Broom”—for his smoothness in sweeping across the diamond and scooping up balls. It’s a skill set fans in Modesto got to see firsthand this year:

But what stands out about Sánchez’s defense isn’t that it stands out, because good defense, like good waitservice or good umpiring, should largely be unseen. Sánchez has some of the quickest hands in the organization, lightning-fast at gobbling up ground balls and completing a smooth transfer; he lets his strong and accurate throwing arm do the rest.

This spring, Sánchez’s defense has been good enough to catch the eye of infield guru Perry Hill, who has enjoyed working with the wide-eyed, eager-to-learn youngster. “I really like the short, quick release of his arm,” says Hill. “He’s not deliberate, like a lot of guys. He gets that ball here and out, really quick.”

Despite the high praise, Hill does see places the young shortstop can improve. “We still have to work on his footwork to get him turned where he’s actually at his target every time. Sometimes he gets a little lazy with his feet and he’s not at his target so his arm has to drop, and that’s where you get a little tail on the ball. So that’s the focus point we’re going to work on. He’s pretty good at it, but there’s always room for improvement.”

But as impressive as the legendary coach has found the youngster on the diamond, he’s been equally impressed with Sánchez off the field.

“He listens to everything,” says Hill. “The games he plays with us as a JIC - a just-in-case player - he’s up on the top step, watching everything that goes on. He’s very calm at his age. He’s not scared, he’s not intimidated. He carries himself like he’s played here before.”

Confident and charismatic, defense has always come easily to Sánchez; weight, less so. Contrary to Baseball America’s assertion in 2019 that the six-foot, 170-pound Sánchez has a “wide build” for shortstop who might have to transfer to third base if he gets any bigger, the six-foot Sánchez has a naturally slender build, and has had to work to build good weight. When he signed, “I was very flaco (thin),” he says, holding his hands together to illustrate his wisp-like former self and pulling a sad face. Since beginning a pro training regimen with the Mariners, he’s added about ten pounds of muscle, working hard to focus on his conditioning and add strength while maintaining his speed.

For Sánchez, though, it’s not just about getting stronger so he can hit balls farther; he understands the role a healthy body plays in keeping players on the field. His number-one goal this year isn’t to hit x number of home runs or finish at a certain level; it’s to have no IL trips, staying healthy so he can play every day. He names the things he needs to do in order to make this happen in English, enumerating them carefully on his fingers: “Good food. Good sleep. Work out. Stretch.”

What has really put Sánchez on the map in the prospect world, however, was the power surge he enjoyed at Modesto this year. In his first pro season in the DSL, the righty hit one home run in just under 200 PAs; upon moving to Arizona and the complex league, he added another two in just under 100 PAs. After being promoted to Modesto in July to fill in for the then-traded Edwin Arroyo, Sánchez knocked another eight home runs in 150 PAs.

Sánchez attributes the power surge to a shift in focus. He’s developed a visualization routine: 25 minutes or so before the game, he finds a quiet spot, closes his eyes, and visualizes his at-bats for the game.

“Then, when I get into the game, it feels easy,” he says, smiling.

It’s a technique he learned from the Mariners, as Andy McKay calls Sánchez the “poster child” for the Mariners’ mental skills development with their young players. One day at a meeting, the minor leaguers had a video call with Edgar Martínez in which the Hall of Famer talked about how on plane rides to games, he would spend the time sitting in the back, watching footage of the pitchers he was going to be facing and visualizing himself taking at-bats against them. Sánchez adapted that technique to the clubhouses of the California League—although with the added assist of significantly better technology than in Edgar’s time—focusing on what Edgar said about being on time for the pitch and improving one’s bat speed. It helped him have better at-bats, so he kept doing it.

It also gave him a boost of confidence as one of the youngest players in the California League, playing full-season ball at just 19 years old. Sánchez was promoted from the ACL after fewer than 100 at-bats in his first taste of stateside ball, to take the place of the departing Edwin Arroyo in Modesto. At the time, Arroyo, traded in the Luis Castillo deal, was one of Seattle’s brightest prospects, hitting. 316 and slugging .514. Sánchez would go on to hit .305 and slug .618 over his time in Modesto.

Growing up, Sánchez idolized Manny Machado, and you can see a distinctly Machadoan echo in Sanchez’s stance: open at the hips, weight resting largely on the back foot, bat-head through head to hands creating a perfectly diagonal line.

But even with the power surge, Sánchez is focused on the kind of hitter he wants to be.

“Contact, always,” he says, in English. “When I come into a game, I focus only on one thing: be on time, and put the ball in play.”

As he jumps up prospect lists, Sánchez admits it feels good to see his hard work acknowledged, but he’s focused on continuing to work hard and advance. And while he tried to stay grounded even while jumping three levels in a season with the Mariners— “same game, same ball,” he shrugs—even the precarious Sánchez can’t deny he was a little starstruck when he made it into his first big-league game this spring as a defensive replacement.

“It’s my dream,” he says in English. “I want to get to know Julio Rodríguez, Eugenio Suárez, Luis Castillo, Cal Raleigh...J.P. Crawford! He’s so good,” he enthuses.

With some of those above-mentioned names absent for the WBC, Sánchez has an opportunity to see more playing time on the big-league side of the field. “I want to learn, because for me it’s so interesting, and take advantage of every opportunity they give me.”

Sánchez loves to learn—he’s working hard on his English, happy to try it out with his American teammates—and takes direction well. In the first big league game he got into, Scott Servais advised him pre-game to pay attention to every pitch, and Sánchez spent the entire game perched on the dugout railing, taking it all in.

“Sometimes I don’t see the little things,” he acknowledges, “but if you pay close attention to the game, you start to see all those little things.” Whenever possible, Sánchez positioned himself behind Suárez and J.P. Crawford, the latter of whom’s style of play he particularly admires and would like to emulate. “J.P. Crawford, he’s a great shortstop, you can see, every time, the six Fs.”

Those six Fs, of course, are Perry Hill’s famous six Fs of fielding. And as a certified student of the game, Sánchez has very much enjoyed his time working with Hill, whom he says has already helped him immensely in just a few sessions of work on Hill’s famous wall at spring training.

“He has helped me remember the little things to do,” Sánchez says in Spanish before switching to Perry Hill-accented English: “Focus on my routine. Get a wide base for groundballs. Stop it!”

“I am trying to ask lots of questions,” says Sánchez, “but of him, especially, to learn what I need to do to be a major leaguer.”

So while Sánchez’s nickname might be “La Escoba,” the broom, a more fitting one might be “La Esponja”—the sponge.