TAMPA — Carlos Mendoza was part of a contingent of Yankees coaches — including manager Aaron Boone — who spent time at the team’s Latin academy in the Dominican Republic last month to check in on some key players working out there during the offseason, like Gary Sanchez and Miguel Andujar.
While they were there, they also got a brief look at the future.
Jasson Dominguez turned 17 Friday, just over seven months after becoming one of the organization’s biggest amateur signings with a $5.1 million bonus last July.
“We watched him hit and he looked good,” said Mendoza, recently promoted to bench coach. “He was impressive for being 16 years old. He’s a strong kid with great bat speed and power. We only saw him take BP, but he was hitting balls with Gary and Miggy. He looks like one of them. For that age, he’s pretty advanced.”
That’s what the Yankees are counting on after spending almost their entire allotment of international pool money last year on the center fielder from Esperanza in the Dominican Republic.
The Yankees were pleased with what they saw in limited action last summer, but since Dominguez didn’t sign until July, he played in just a few instructional league games.
Spring training has already begun in the Dominican and he is set to make his debut in the Dominican Summer League at the end of May or early June.
A possible promotion to the Gulf Coast League in Tampa later in the summer isn’t out of the question in what will be considered his first professional season — but general manager Brian Cashman insisted Dominguez will be judged just like every other top prospect.
“He’ll be no different than other first-rounders or high-profile Latin players,” Cashman said. “The numbers might be different and there might be more spotlight on him, but it’s the same process. We’re excited to have him. Now it’s time to allow his development to take place. He’s just starting his journey.”
That journey began in Esperanza and continued at Ivan Noboa’s Academy in the Dominican.
Donny Rowland, the Yankees director of international scouting, immediately noticed what his scouts told him when he finally watched Dominguez in person.
“The first time I saw him, the hairs on my arm stood up and my guys said it was just an OK day for him,” Rowland said of the workout at Noboa’s academy. “He had huge power. His skills are silly. They’re stupid. They’re crazy.”
Asked for an example, Rowland said Dominguez hit homers on 13 straight pitches during batting practice from the left side.
Joel Lithgow, director of the Yankees Latin Baseball Academy, said Dominguez had “one of best tryouts I’ve ever seen. He was 16 but looked like a veteran.”
“He probably has the best set of tools I’ve seen here. He’s right there with Sanchez, but he’s a switch hitter and a great runner.”
“What we’d heard before we scouted and signed him was hard to believe,” said Mario Garza, now the Yankees coordinator of baseball development. “But after having him for a while now, he’s the real deal.”
Eric Schmitt, director of player development, was in the Dominican for an instructional league game last year and Dominguez hit a home run in his first at-bat.
“I know it was a small sample size, but it was good to see,” Schmitt said. “As soon as he walks on the field, he’s impressive. The first thing you notice is that power from both sides.”
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Dominguez has the athleticism to play shortstop or catcher, but his future is in center.
“He wants to be great,” Rowland said. “He doesn’t want the money. He wants to be a great player and with that comes money. He’s a baseball rat.”
Rowland said he scouted Dominguez about 50 times before the Yankees signed him, more than any other Latin player he’s seen. And it wasn’t just because he wanted to make sure the talent was what he thought it was.
“We put in a ton of man hours with him before signing him,” Rowland said. “From the start of the process, we found out everything we could about him. I listened to what people said about him and watched the way he went about his business.”
What Rowland learned made him more confident about the investment.
“He lets his actions speak for themselves,” Rowland said. “With what I saw as an amateur, there’s no reason his makeup should stop him from reaching his potential. Maybe the slider or changeup will. You never know. A lot of things have to happen to make it.”
And even if things go well, Rowland knows there will be road blocks.
“You have to make adjustments and deal with failure,” Rowland said. “When he goes 0-for-20, like everyone does, the world is gonna panic because the expectations are so great. He shouldn’t panic. Everyone expects him to be Superman. He has to stay the course. People change. Let’s hope he doesn’t.”
There will also be the challenge of what Rowland called “prospect fatigue.”
“People have heard about this kid since he’s 16,” Rowland said. “In five years, if he’s not in the majors, people will say, ‘What happened to him?’ But he’ll still only be 21. I think he’s got the makeup and toughness to deal with it.”
So far, not surprisingly, Yankee brass remains confident Dominguez is everything they hoped he’d be.
“We signed him and paid him what we did for a reason: He warranted it,” Rowland said. “His skill set left us no choice. Somebody would have given him more.”
Which is why the Yankees shifted away from their usual strategy of spreading their international pool money among dozens of players.
“With Jasson’s ability, it came to a point where there really was no decision to be made as to whether he was worth it all,” Rowland said.
The next test will be seeing Dominguez against real competition.
“Guys have to earn their way to Tampa,” Schmitt said of moving from the DSL to the Gulf Coast League. “We’re gonna do what’s best for him in his development so that he can help us for many years to come.”