With the 105th overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Yankees selected Jake Sanford from Western Kentucky University. The young Canadian’s quest to become a professional baseball player looked like a long shot when he played as a walk-on for a Junior College team in 2017. With his first taste of professional baseball under his belt, Sanford will be looking to develop the skills that could make him an elite prospect.
Sanford was a standout athlete who earned a volleyball scholarship to Dalhousie College in Nova Scotia. With limited opportunities to show his baseball aptitude through high school, he was not on the radar of any major college baseball programs, much less on the radar for professional teams. Forgoing the opportunity to play volleyball, Sanford contacted coach Jon Olsen at McCook Community College in Nebraska to ask for a chance to walk on to the baseball team.
With a chance to compete for playing time, Sanford hit the ground running, becoming a major contributor for McCook over the next two seasons. He hit .358 and .374 in back-to-back seasons. Scouts also began to get a glimpse of Sanford’s tremendous raw power as he hit 23 home runs over the two seasons while setting a school record by slugging .700 during his sophomore season. His overall performance caught the eye of multiple Division one schools, and Sanford agreed to play for Western Kentucky, where he received a scholarship to play for his junior season.
At Western Kentucky, Sanford’s production continued to trend upward. In his only season at the school, he won the first triple-crown in Conference USA history. He slashed .398/.483/.805 with 22 home runs and 66 RBI. Following that performance, he was named the Conference USA player of the year, and male athlete of the year. From walk-on to legitimate prospect in three seasons, Sanford met with at least 25 teams heading into the draft. Still on the board near the end of the third round, the Yankees grabbed the talented young outfielder.
Despite his gaudy college numbers, Sanford was viewed as a player with a lot of untapped potential due to his limited experience during his high school years. Yankees director of scouting Damon Oppenheimer was quoted as saying “His high school season was one weekend.” Sanford was also not exposed to the elite wood bat leagues that many top college players participate in during their summers, which could affect his transition to the professional ranks.
His background is similar to recently elected Hall of Famer Larry Walker. The two lefty swinging Canadians both grew up playing hockey along with other sports before committing to baseball after high school. Sanford stated that he and Walker had talked on the phone around the time of the draft.
Assigned to the Short-Season A Staten Island Yankees after the draft, Sanford struggled early on, hitting just .218/.279/.338 over his first 36 games. Without an extensive wood-bat background, scouts’ worries that his power from college would not replicate in the pros seemed founded as he hit just one home run in that stretch. Sanford began to figure things out down the stretch, though, hitting six home runs with a 143 wRC+ over his last 23 games to finish out his first professional season.
This coming season, Sanford will have to show development against a higher level of competition. He is likely targeted for Low-A Charleston to start the season, where the Yankees saw another lefty-swinging outfielder in Canaan Smith take a major step forward last season. Some evaluators have questioned Sanford’s abilities in the outfield, labeling him as a left fielder who may also end up playing first base. In Staten Island, the Yankees mostly ran Sanford out in center field as he played in college. The Yankees will also be looking for him to lower his 32% strikeout rate from his first campaign.
Sanford’s raw power is one of the better tools inside the Yankees system. Coming from a limited high school background, he likely has a longer development path than many third rounders with three years of college experience. That longer path is also matched with a potential that could see him rise into one of the Yankees’ better prospects over the next few seasons.