Yankees Magazine: Ready for Liftoff
Fans expect Jasson Dominguez to rocket toward the big leagues, but ‘The Martian’ has a long journey ahead of him
It would be poetic, but also unfortunately something of a lie, to say that the first thing you notice about Jasson Dominguez is the line of braces across his toothy grin. Your eyes actually go to his shoulders, somehow wider and broader every time you blink. Then to his biceps, which all but tear through his too-small large shirt. You look at his body, and you see a guy who has never once skipped arm day, whose thighs are as big as midsize sedans.
There’s interesting and there’s remarkable, and Dominguez’s physique is certainly the latter.
And yet, the braces. How perfectly -- metaphorically and literally -- they paint the full picture of this muscular ball of clay, ostensibly starting out on a journey that is, in reality, entering the fourth phase of the Dominican Republic baseball life cycle. He got the braces put on last November, a few months after Dominguez became the Yankees’ $5.1 Million Man (or $5.1 Million Martian, if you prefer nicknames). The braces speak volumes, as does the way he half-spins in the swiveling office chair throughout an hourlong conversation just a few weeks before his 17th birthday.
If Dominguez were in the United States, he’d be a kid. He would be thinking about getting his driver’s license, maybe picking out a car. It’s reasonable to think that he’d have the same full set of orthodontia. He’d be doing teenager things, while also planning for a future that was bright, but still off in the distance. Admittedly, it’s a bit hard to separate the Jasson Dominguez that your brain thinks should exist from the one who’s sitting before you. The muscles deceive you into thinking that this is a player ready for The Show; the braces pull you back.
And about that reality. … Dominguez is a kid who earned a grown-up paycheck to play a kids’ game. Is that oversimplified, even culturally insensitive, ignoring the realities of the island’s hard life? Perhaps. No doubt, Dominguez’s youth has had more of a professional side than most kids.
“I feel like I have a certain level of maturity,” he says, with Héctor González, the Yankees’ coordinator of cultural development, translating. “It’s probably above average of other kids my age. Since I was a little kid, I feel like I was a little more stable than the majority of the kids my age.”
Excelling as a catcher, a shortstop and an outfielder, Dominguez has been part of the Dominican baseball machine since age 8, working with different academies before he signed on with noted buscone Ivan Noboa at age 13. All of that was to prepare him for the day -- July 2, 2019 -- when the then–16-year-old would be eligible to sign with a Major League organization. For 16 years, Jasson Dominguez was in the Jasson Dominguez business, and he cashed out with the largest July 2 deal ever offered by the Yankees. On July 3, he was one day older, but $5.1 million richer, and ready to hit a lucrative and exciting, but metaphysically awkward, reset button. Jasson Dominguez, LLC, had ceased operations, merging with the New York Yankees of American professional baseball.
Now that the contract details were done, Dominguez, like so many high school-age kids, could work on perfecting his smile. As for the $5.1 Million Man’s baseball game? His new partners will take care of that -- just on a radically different timetable from what he had ever known.
It’s funny to hear Dominguez talk about the path that led to the July 2 day that changed everything. His voice is sing-songy throughout, a roller coaster of acoustic tones. The grin is earned. Real. He was a kid, like any kid, he says, and he sometimes needed a push or a kick to get in gear.
“Especially when I was younger,” he says, stopping himself short to ward off the incredulous response. “I know, I’m still young.
“But when I was younger, sometimes, you would hear so many things that you would just start believing them. And your ego would start to make you think that you were the big man, the big elephant in the room. And that’s when my parents or Ivan would pull me up and yell at me.”
When he signed on with the academy at 13 years old, Dominguez and Noboa made bets on each other. Dominguez saw Noboa’s track record, the Major Leaguers that he had produced, including Nomar Mazara, who earned a then-record $5 million bonus from the Rangers in 2011. He was willing to commit a percentage of his future earnings in exchange for years of training from Noboa and his team of instructors. On the other side, Noboa saw the same things that American teams’ scouts would notice over the next few years. A work ethic and an attitude that, when combined with a body that was advanced far beyond most kids his age, projected to something special enough to be worth one of the three or four spots available at the academy in any given year.
“He wasn’t fully developed,” Noboa says, with González translating. “You could see that he had the hitting ability, but he didn’t have the power. And he was only like 5-foot-4 when I first met him. You could project him, guess that he was going to develop into what he did, obviously with time and work.”
Dominguez would wake up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. every day and begin his brutal routine. Mornings were for defense and conditioning, then batting practice before lunch. After some time cleaning the house and a quick nap, he’d head to the gym around 2 p.m. for a full workout. Sometimes he’d add in a second afternoon hitting session. School? That was on Saturday.
Within a year or so, Dominguez was racing toward the top of the class, drawing all kinds of attention around the island. Every team was sending scouts.
“You knew,” Noboa says. “There were rumors that he was so good, and that in his class, he was separating himself. The tools that he had were very special. So, we knew that he could project to break a record for Latin American players.
“When you have a talent like that, it’s like once every 20 years. Everyone is going to show interest.”
Donny Rowland runs the Yankees’ international scouting department, and -- in concert with the player development staff in Tampa and the executives in New York -- he carries out the team’s strategy when the league-wide international signing window opens on July 2. These deals -- especially the record-setting marks such as what the Yankees gave Dominguez -- don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re dependent on finding a match between what different teams have available to them, a complex calculation based in part on the amount the team spent in recent years, the team’s record on the field and any international money acquired in trades. And as with any transactions involving 16-year-old kids, a healthy understanding of risk management. As the calendar kept racing toward July 2, 2019, Dominguez was the ultimate prize, the guy everyone wanted. The Yankees, thanks to careful planning and some good fortune, had the resources to match the moment.
Rowland had been getting reports on Dominguez from his lieutenants, Juan Rosario and Edgar Mateo, and the league scuttlebutt was hardly quiet. You didn’t have to be the type of person attuned to the swell of international prospects to pick up on the growing notoriety. When major news outlets started writing about the young Dominican kid who evoked images of Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle, “The Martian” began to permeate the mainstream.
It would seem impossible for a player to match that kind of hype, but this kid was the real thing.
“The first time I saw him, it was evident,” Rowland says. “He’s the kind of player that makes the hair on your arm stand up when you watch him.”
The Yankees had the money in 2019, but they also had fate on their side. Jasson’s father, Félix, had always told Noboa that if the Yankees were in the conversation, then that was the ideal destination. It was something Jasson had been born into, an unimaginable coincidence spanning more than 1,000 miles. As he grew up, Jasson remembers watching Yankees-Red Sox games with his dad, who was constantly looking for work as a day laborer back home in Esperanza, near Santiago on the north part of the island. They would go to a grocery store and watch the games on TV whenever possible. But the bond began even earlier than that.
“When Jasson’s mom was pregnant,” Noboa says, “and Jason Giambi hit a home run in the playoffs, Jasson’s dad put his hand on his wife’s belly and said, ‘This kid’s name is going to be Jasson.’ So Jasson has been a Yankees fan since before he was even born.”
Finally, on July 2, all of the work that Dominguez had put in since he was the age of your typical third grader paid off. The Yankees had never given an international prospect such a big bonus, and for the entire Dominguez family, life stopped and then restarted.
“On July 1, it was only rumors,” Jasson says some six months later. “Nothing was a fact. July 3, it was a fact. … I had a goal, I worked for my goal, I reached my goal. But that’s in the past. I need to set up new goals.
“But also, I was thinking, ‘This is the time. I’m here. I’m doing it.’ And I felt like I had proved to other people that might have their doubts that I could do the things that I knew that I could do.”
Life’s doors open and close all the time, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. Rarely, though, does one phase so quickly and decisively shift to another.
A t the Yankees’ Latin Béisbol Academy outside of Boca Chica, the retired numbers are the first thing you see when you head to the field. You walk out and get smacked in the face by Casey Stengel’s 37. Look left, and there, in a line, you find Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle. To the right, Bill Dickey, Yogi, Whitey and Thurman. No pressure.
These are the pillars. The whole house is built on this foundation. For the young kids, as much as the goal is to learn baseball, it’s also to gain intimate knowledge of the organization and the space around them. It’s about the world they’re trying to reach, and the one they’re trying to leave. It’s sad, in a way, to have the ultimate optimistic outlook require expatriation. But this isn’t a hobby, and it’s not really a game. Indeed, for all that separates the Dominican baseball machine from its American counterpart, the biggest difference is how little game experience -- and team experience -- these players have after years spent honing and showcasing skills, not pursuing wins.
“Now the dollar signs that we signed him with don’t apply,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. “Now he’s in a competitive mode with his peers, and the cream rises to the top. Period. He’s got to earn his roster appointments like anybody else does.”
Right after he signed, Dominguez spent a couple months working out with the Yankees and playing some Dominican instructional league games. In his first at-bat, he blasted a ball to the trees beyond the fence, as perfect a start as anyone could have dreamed. But this spring, the real program began. He’s one of about 100 Dominican talents trying to make their way to America. He has gotten his payday, but that’s firmly in the past.
“I think there’s just a sense of urgency that’s coming with his work,” says Andrew Wright, the director of the Yankees’ Dominican academy. “It’s go time now. I know you talk about that clock, that he’s now got to think about preparing himself for a long career, but every day has to matter. He came in understanding that, but I think you can really see it now. He’s competitive. And he’s also a 17-year-old kid. You’ve got to understand that he has to be afforded the same perspective that you would give any other 17-year-old. I think that’s one of the things that we really have to be cognizant of, as the people who are trying to guide him through his first years in professional baseball.”
Dominguez is a switch-hitter with excellent scouting grades in all facets of the game. He hits well, has a great eye and has obvious power. He’s an excellent fielder with a great arm, and he’s very fast. Some of this is projection, some of it is right in front of us at the moment. He’s raw, like all the kids around him, but he still can stand out among his peers and, just as impressively, fit in among big leaguers.
When Yankees manager Aaron Boone visited the Dominican Republic in January along with several coaches, he was amazed by a hitting session that Dominguez put in with Gary Sánchez and Miguel Andújar.
“He’s physically so impressive at such a young age,” Boone says. “He looks the part with Gary and Miggy in the cage.”
A different wrinkle emerged a few weeks later, though, when Dominguez officially started his 2020 program at the academy. Wright ran the first on-field session with the young Dominican players, and insisted that they stretch their arms by throwing easily, about 70 percent. This was day one of a long journey -- not just to the end of whatever would become of the 2020 season, but of a winding path that will hopefully lead Dominguez to a star turn in the Bronx, maybe even his own spot in Monument Park -- The Martian alongside The Mick. It’s ridiculous to put that kind of pressure on a kid so young, but it’s also no different from what Dominguez has been hearing for years.
So, 70 percent. Wright wants to see air under the throws. Easy tossing, up to about 100 feet.
Immediately, Dominguez airmails the first throw, launching the baseball into the bullpen beyond his partner. The next throw misses the glove, too. One after another, and you begin to wonder what’s going on with the hyper-mega-super-prospect who can’t seem to make a simple throw.
But then it hits you. Dominguez has been training for this moment for basically his entire life. Every workout, every practice, every showcase was leading to this day. He has proven that he can do anything on a baseball field, and he has been richly rewarded for it. There’s one thing, though, that you have to imagine he has never been asked to do: Take his foot off the gas.
“That kind of makes me laugh,” Noboa says, “because Jasson is the kind of person who always wants to give everything he has. One hundred percent; 110, if he can.”
Imagine going for a run and climbing an imposing hill. Up you go, pushing more and more as you near the top. Only, instead of the apex giving way to a gradual decline, you fall off a cliff and start the climb anew. That’s what July 3 looks like for a young international prospect.
“Something that people don’t understand,” says Sánchez, who signed for a $3 million bonus in 2009, “is that when you sign and get that bonus, you’re not signing because you’re going to the big leagues. You’re signing because you’re going to school. It’s a process. You’ve got to start way at the bottom and work yourself up to the main goal of getting to the big leagues. It’s one step at a time. A lot of hard work in between, a lot of conviction in what you want to do, and you keep climbing those steps.”
One hundred, 110 -- that’s all Dominguez has known. And while the Yankees will always appreciate max effort from their young prospects, they’ll also look to harness and manipulate only those skills that will maximize his -- and the team’s -- future. This isn’t really about building the best Jasson Dominguez anymore; it’s about building a Yankee.
“You learn how to be more professional, to prepare yourself in a better way,” Dominguez says of his first months in the organization. “They have meetings here about those topics, and one of the things that really sticks in my head is how to behave yourself, how to conduct yourself. Now, you’re a professional; you’re representing the Yankees.”
Dominguez turned 17 in February. The braces won’t straighten his teeth in a day, and neither will the Yankees make him a Major Leaguer immediately. This is all a long process, all the more so considering how his year was interrupted before it could really begin. He still has time to grow, to be the kid whose social media posts are basically a love letter to avocados and cars. His youth, such as it was, demanded a constant sprint to July 2, 2019. Once July 3 hit, his new life demanded patience. Good luck teaching that to a kid such as Jasson Dominguez. But when you consider all that he can do on the baseball field already, it might be the single biggest project the Yankees have ahead of them.
“I think you have to embrace it,” Wright says. “You have to embrace him as a person if we’re going to get anywhere close to how good he can be as a player. If we try to speed him up in his life, I don’t think we’re going to get the best product. … We can’t start thinking of him as a 23-year-old. He’s got a long way to go. But he has the potential to have a very long career ahead of him."