DURHAM — Jerry Sands was all set to put on the Red Sox uniform in late July. Then he found out he’d be sticking to the Dodger blue for a little while longer.
When the trade that moved him from Los Angeles to Boston became official after the season, he had just enough time on the Boston 40-man roster to start to get comfortable. It was two days before Christmas.
That’s when the former Johnston County baseball standout who played at Smithfield-Selma High School first got word of another possible trade. Then, just days after the holidays, it was official – the former Catawba standout was a Pirate.
Before he had even gotten the chance to start in Boston, he was starting over again with Pittsburgh.
“I felt a pretty good amount of starting over,” Sands said recently while playing in Durham with the Indianapolis Indians, Pittsburgh’s Triple-A club. “The Pirates had been watching me. They said they’d been doing a pretty good amount of work watching me, trying to get me in a trade. But coming to a whole, not even a new clubhouse, a whole new organization, it was different.
“If you get moved up in the Dodgers organization, there might have been one or two guys you’ve interacted with. Most of these guys I’ve never really interacted with at all.”
The adjustment hasn’t gone like Sands, who resides in Wendell, would have preferred. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound outfielder was hitting just .196 through his first 65 games before going on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Those numbers were a far cry from his recent runs in the Minor League, runs that earned him two trips to the Dodgers’ Major League roster in two different seasons.
Sands’ numbers in Triple-A with Albuquerque were legendary in the Dodgers’ organization. He hit 29 home runs in just 94 games in 2011, then hit 26 in 119 games in 2012, averaging about a homer every fourth game. As an Indian this season, his HR per game rate is down to under a dinger every 10 games.
“It’s just me pressing a little bit,” Sands said of the tough start to the season, “just not letting myself just play. Obviously I know I’m a better player than what I’ve showed. I know it because of what I’ve performed better in the past and there’s also times where you’re like, ‘There’s no way I should be getting out like this.’ ”
The struggles have led to the Indians dropping Sands through the batting order. He’s hit in six different spots in the order and of late – although still playing every day – has hit eighth or ninth. The Indians’ staff has just started to get to know the outfielder/infielder’s swing and work habits.
“When you’re trying to learn from someone new, it takes confidence and trust on both parts,” said Indianapolis hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo, an 11-year Major League veteran. “We’ve just tried to be very supportive of Jerry, learn what we can about him.”
Slow starts have been the rule for Sands the past two seasons. He entered spring training in 2012 with a chance to make the Dodgers’ opening day roster if he had a good spring. It didn’t happen and he went back to Triple-A Albuquerque. He went back to work on his swing there, picking things up when he got back to the swing that allowed him to often drive the ball to right-center field with power. That led to another stint in L.A. and his inclusion in the trade that brought three former All-Stars to the Dodgers from Boston. During the fall, he was thought of as a possibility for the Red Sox outfield. But then another trade brought him to the Pittsburgh organization. The opportunity is there with a waiting spot in right field for Sands but things haven’t clicked at the plate so far.
Pagliarulo says it is tough to balance that quest to stay with a proven swing to adjusting to new challenges at different levels of competition.
“You look at video and it’s hard to tell much of anything,” Pagliarulo said. “Because it’s Double-A video and he hit a home run off of a guys who’s in Double-A because he’s not that good.
“You can’t have the same swing in Single-A in Double-A or Triple-A. You’re not going to go through the minors and not have your swing change. If you do, you won’t be here long. You have to adjust because that Double-A swing isn’t going to work at Triple-A. In the Majors, what that pitcher throws is based on how you swung the first time.”
Sands has continued to focus on putting together solid at-bats with productive approaches above all else. “I’ve been swinging the bat better,” he said. “It’s not where I want it to be but I think I’ve made some strides this season, just battling this struggle is going to help me. Just getting little bits here and there from the new coaches.”
Pagliarulo has been impressed by Sands’ work habits and his defensive play. “The thing that’s really surprised me is his defense,” he said. “It really makes you like the way he plays the game. As a right fielder, he’s already Major League level. And we had no idea how good a defense first baseman he was. Defense is a big part of the game and he’s got that down.”
The changes Sands is trying to make with his swing have been small.
“What we’ve tried to do with Jerry is really work on his legs,” Pagliarulo said. “There were times earlier in the season when his legs weren’t working with the rest of his body. Good swings were there in pieces, but we’re seeing more and more of them now.”
At age 25, Sands is seemingly at the ideal age to make the move to the Majors on a longer basis. He knows he’ll have to improve to make that happen but tries not to worry too much about the future because it’s an unknown no matter how well you’re playing.
“The thing about baseball is there are no standards of performance,” Pagliarulo said. “It’s all a big mess in a way. I wish I could come up with the formula. Write it down, what it takes. I’d be onto something then. But it’s just not there. There’s no set path that works all the time.”
Sands is confident that there’s still plenty of great baseball in his future. There have been signs that it’s coming. He hit a game-winning home run in extra-innings against the Durham Bulls in June and had an extended hot streak in late May: hitting three home runs in a four-day span and driving in 10 runs in a week’s time.
The Pirates are thriving so far this season and appear poised to have a chance to end their long string of losing seasons. He knows he can be a part of that with a productive second half of the Triple-A season.
“I’m way better than those numbers show,” Sands said. “I just want those numbers to show how I’ve gotten my swing back to a comfortable spot where I can repeat it, and then I want to be one of those guys in the lineup that teams know and respect.”
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