Chris Young’s great April shouldn’t stand in the way of regular playing time for Slade Heathcott

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Back a few weeks ago, when the Yankees were winning on a consistent basis, they were doing so thanks in part to fourth outfielder Chris Young, who was providing power and strong overall play off the bench. His production was forcing Joe Girardi to pencil him into the lineup as often as possible, even at the expense of Brett Gardner at times. It appeared the Yankees had struck bench player gold.

The last few weeks have been much different, however. Both for the Yankees and Young. Since the calendar flipped to May, Young is gone a weak 6-for-42 (.143) overall, including his current 2-for-31 (.065) rut. And while that isn’t a ton of playing time, it is enough to know Young no longer belongs in the lineup as often a possible. His struggles seem to have flown under the radar a bit given everything else happening with the team, yet there they are.

Young’s hot start earned him some rope, and with Jacoby Ellsbury out hurt and Carlos Beltran always at risk of getting hurt, there are lots of reasons to keep him around. I don’t think anyone is lobbying to get rid of him anyway. What the Yankees should do though is reduce Young’s playing time, especially against righties, with those at-bats going to Slade Heathcott instead.

Heathcott was called up when Ellsbury got hurt and he’s gone 5-for-12 (.417) with a double and a homer in three starts so far, which tells us … nothing, really. Outside of a serious injury, there’s no way three games should change your opinion about any player. Heathcott should play more simply because he’s young player with two-way ability who — bear with me a second, it’s about to get a little crazy — might actually carve out a role with the team going forward because his best years are ahead of him.

The Yankees are being hush hush about Ellsbury’s timetable, though we do know he will spend more than the minimum 15 days on the DL. That could mean 16 days, 30 days, 60 days … who knows? Either way, Ellsbury is not returning anytime soon, so playing time is plentiful, and that’s an opportunity to evaluate Heathcott at the MLB level. The Yankees called Slade up over other deserving players (Ramon Flores, most notably), so it’s clear they like him. He’s not just a warm body.

Remember, Heathcott is a former first round pick and tools aren’t a question. He’s battled injuries and off-the-field demons over the years, not a lack of production, and we’ve seen just how dynamic he can be when healthy these last few days. Slade plays defense, seems to have a plan at the plate, has speed, and is sneaky strong. Plus he plays with the dial turned to eleven at all times. That doesn’t necessarily make him a better player, but it makes him fun to watch. Talent, effort, health. For years he only had two of the three. At this very moment he has all three.

Heathcott is someone who could have a future with the Yankees and force the team to clear a spot for him down the road. This call-up during Ellsbury’s injury may only be temporary, but that’s okay, it’s still an opportunity for Slade to get his foot in the door. Play well now and make a good first impression, and the next time an outfielder gets hurt, the club’s call-up decision won’t be tough. Keep playing well and suddenly a roster spot could be there come Spring Training 2016.

This isn’t Melky Cabrera circa 2005-06, when he fell on his face (almost literally too) during his 2005 cameo but got called up again in 2006 because he was the best option. Heathcott has competition and the Yankees have options. If he doesn’t play well now, Flores is waiting to get the next opportunity. If Flores doesn’t work, there’s Tyler Austin. Slade is the most well-rounded player though, one who can contribute on both sides of the ball, and he’s the kind of young player the Yankees should be embracing given their current roster.

Young did some fine work earlier this season. The Yankees benefited greatly and he remains a useful piece off the bench. He shouldn’t get playing time priority over Heathcott though, and, to be fair, Heathcott has started three of the last four games against right-handed starters, so Young isn’t stealing at-bats from him right now. Slade is an underdog with one heck of a story. He’s also a young player with talent who could help the Yankees short and long-term. The Yankees owe it to themselves to use Ellsbury’s injury as an opportunity to let Heathcott show what he can do. Otherwise I don’t see much point in calling him up.

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Slade Heathcott and Not-So-Irrational Optimism

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Spring Training this year was a great time to prospect watch. The Yankees had just about all of their top prospects in big league camp and they were all impressive. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Jacob Lindgren, and Luis Severino stood out in particular but they were hardly alone. It was a fun few weeks watching the kids play, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the most impressive prospect in Spring Training was a player who came to camp barely registering as a prospect at this point of his career: Slade Heathcott. Heathcott played only nine games last season due a pair of knee surgeries and only 230 games from 2011-14 due to knee and shoulder surgeries, which means a lot of missed development time. I ranked him the team’s 30th best prospect before the season, so he only barely made the cut.

The Yankees non-tendered Heathcott this past offseason because it was the only way to get him off the 40-man roster without exposing him to waivers. Heathcott could have signed with any other team as a free agent but instead returned to the Yankees on a minor league deal that included an invite to Spring Training, though he was an afterthought compared to the other prospects coming into camp.

Heathcott, now 24, had a dynamite showing in Spring Training, hitting .333/.450/.545 with three stolen bases in parts of 23 Grapefruit League games. He won the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in Spring Training and played so well the Yankees decided to send him to Triple-A Scranton to start the season rather than Double-A Trenton as planned.

So far this year Heathcott is hitting .347/.392/.472 (~145 wRC+) with two steals, a 7.5 BB%, and a 16.3 K% in 80 plate appearances with the RailRiders, including a torrid 14-for-25 (.560) stretch in his last seven games. He’s also running around center field making catches like this (GIF via Donnie Collins):

Slade Heathcott

We didn’t see Heathcott make any catches quite that good in Spring Training, but we did see a Slade Heathcott who looked fully healthy for the first time in years. You don’t make athletic plays like that without being healthy. Heathcott moved around very well in camp and looked great physically following his various surgeries.

“Honestly, my knee never crosses my mind when I’m playing,” said Heathcott to Chad Jennings in Spring Training. “I’m to the point that I’ve trained hard enough and ran enough and done the training that I need to do to make sure that it will hold up. It very seldom crosses my mind. So it’s really just the confidence of getting back in the swing of things.”

Heathcott’s apparent return to health and bonafide hot start have me feeling … conflicted. My head says not to excited because Slade has basically no track record of health. When we all look back at his hot start in August, we’ll laugh because it was just a hot start, nothing more. Know what I mean? This isn’t the first time Heathcott’s gotten off to a great start. He hit .370/.440/.616 in his first 18 games of 2011, for example.

At the same time, my heart is telling me hell yeah Heathcott’s healthy! This is all legit! He always had talent, that was never the question. Heathcott could just never stay on the field but now he’s doing it. This is great! How could you not get excited about what Slade has done so far this season? This is pretty much the best case scenario. Couldn’t ask for a better Spring Training and start to the regular season.

So which one should I listen to, my head or my heart? I think the answer is both. Heathcott sure looked healthy in Spring Training based on how well he moved around following a pair of recent knee surgeries, and he can do some exciting things if healthy, but at the same time staying healthy has been a career long challenge for Slade. An impressive spring and a great start to the Triple-A season doesn’t change that.

Against my better judgement, I find myself getting very excited about Heathcott and the prospect of finally (finally!) seeing what he can do across a full, healthy season. The Yankees have a lot of upper level outfield depth — Heathcott has been flanked by Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores in the Triple-A outfield, so yeah — so I’m not sure where Slade fits into the call-up pecking order, but if he keeps playing like this, he’ll force his way into the picture. He offers a dynamic two-way, power-speed game Austin and Flores simply do not. For the first time in a long time, there is a reason to be excited about Heathcott.

“Heathcott’s been very impressive. Very healthy, very athletic, very productive,” said Brian Cashman to Jennings at the end of Spring Training. “There’s optimism.”

Minor League Notes: Assignments, Spring Reports, Judge, International Spending

Pace of play clocks are up at PNC Field in Scranton. (RailRiders)
The new pace of play clocks are up at PNC Field in Scranton. (RailRiders)

The Yankees open the 2015 regular season tomorrow, and a few days later the minor league season will get underway as well. Triple-A Scranton, Double-A Trenton, High-A Tampa, and Low-A Charleston all begin their seasons this coming Thursday. Here are some minor league notes to hold you over until then.

Opening Day assignments for top prospects

The full minor league rosters have not yet been released and won’t be a few days, though Josh Norris was able to get his hands on Opening Day assignments for most of the Yankees’ top prospects. The list:

Norris says the assignments could change slightly before the start of the season, but for the most part they’re set. Sanchez is going back to the Thunder to continue working on his defense with coaches and ex-catchers Michel Hernandez and P.J. Pilittere, which I don’t love, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I assume Avelino, Katoh, and Mateo will rotate between second, short, and DH like Avelino, Katoh, and Wade did last year before Avelino got hurt. I’m little surprised Mateo is going to Charleston — he’s played only games in 15 rookie ball, that’s it — but the Yankees have never been shy about aggressively promoting their best teenage players. Otherwise these assignments are fairly straight forward. No major surprises.

Notes from the backfields in Tampa

Both Keith Law (subs. req’d) and Jeff Moore (no subs. req’d) recently posted a collection of notes after watching minor league games on the backfields all around Florida. Law got a look at Mateo, saying he likes “how well he keeps his hands inside the ball” and added he “liked the potential of the hit tool but was hoping to see more polish on both sides of the ball.” The polish will come. It’s only Spring Training and Mateo is still just a 19-year-old kid.

Meanwhile, Moore saw Judge, Bird, and RHP Bryan Mitchell. “What’s impressive is (Judge) seems to get a little better each time I see him. The at-bats have gotten tougher and more advanced, with a better plan each time out,” wrote Moore. He also said he sees Bird as “a potential regular first baseman” and his “power is very real, more real than he gets credit for.” As for Mitchell, Moore says his fastball/curveball combination “screams reliever, and possibly a darn good one.”

Law still ranks Judge 23rd in latest Top 50 Prospects list

Last week, Law released an updated ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball (subs. req’d). There are only very minor changes from his top 100 list in February, with the most notable being the addition of Red Sox IF Yoan Moncada, who slots in at No. 16. Even with Moncada joining the list, Judge stays in the same No. 23 spot because he jumped over Rockies RHP Jon Gray, who hasn’t looked like himself this spring. Judge remains the third outfielder on the list behind Twins OF Byron Buxton and Cubs OF Jorge Soler. Law is the high man on Judge based on all this spring’s other top 100 lists. That’s cool with me.

Yankees spent $17.83M on international players in 2014

According to Ben Badler, the Yankees spent a ridiculous $17.83M on international prospects last year, easily the most in baseball. They spent more than the number two (Rays, $6.11M), three (Red Sox, $5.63M), and four (Astros, $5.42M) teams combined and more than the bottom ten teams combined ($16.9575M). Just to be clear, this is for the 2014 calendar year, not the 2014-15 signing period.

The Yankees handed out three of the five largest, six of the 14 largest, and 12 of the 40 largest signing bonuses to international prospects during the 2014 calendar year, according to Badler. We still don’t have a final number for the total bonuses the Yankees handed out during the 2014-15 signing period, but the total investment is clearly going to be north of $30M between bonuses and penalties. Most of that $17.83M last year was spent on July 2nd, the first day of the 2014-15 signing period. Now the Yankees just have to turn these kids into big leaguers and tradeable prospects.

Yankees release nine more minor leaguers

The Yankees have released seven more minor leaguers according to Matt Eddy: OF Yeicok Calderon, RHP Tim Giel, OF Robert Hernandez, RHP Stefan Lopez, RHP Matt Noteware, 1B Dalton Smith, and IF Graham Ramos. Dan Pfeiffer says OF Adonis Garcia was released as well, and OF Adam Silva announced on Facebook he was also released.

First things first: no more Yeicokshots!, sadly. Hernandez was signed in January, so his stint with the organization didn’t last long. Lopez led NCAA in saves in 2012 and had some potential, but he fell in love with his fastball so much in college that he lost all feel for his slider and became a one-pitch guy. The Yankees signed Giel, Noteware, and Ramos as undrafted free agents within the last two years to help fill out minor league rosters. That’s about it.

Old Timers’ Game coming to Triple-A Scranton

And finally, the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre franchise is holding an Old Timers’ Game on June 21st, reports Donnie Collins. The event will raise money for Parkinson’s disease research. “I expect the ballpark to be sold out — and standing room only. That’s the goal,” said RailRiders’ co-managing partner to Grant Cagle to Collins. A bunch of ex-Yankees will be in attendance — not sure who, exactly — to play in the Old Timers’ Game and/or mingle with fans during a meet-and-greet and autograph session. That should be fun.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Sabathia, Nova, Bailey, Heathcott, Barbato, Hensley

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Here are some injury updates with pitchers and catchers only ten days away from reporting to Tampa for the start of Spring Training 2015. The updates come courtesy of Brad Lefton, Dan Martin, Chad Jennings, and the Associated Press.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) adjusted his usual offseason program and has not been throwing with as much intensity as he had in the past. “Right from the beginning of camp last year, all the pitchers were throwing in the bullpen, but they were just easing into it, so there’s really no reason for me to push myself to throw full throttle before I even get there this time,” he said.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) is working out and throwing regularly at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about how his arm works or how his knee works. Not anymore,” said Brian Cashman. Sabathia is expected to be a healthy player come the start of Spring Training.
  • Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) has been throwing on flat ground and recently said his elbow feels great. He should start throwing off a mound very soon if he hasn’t already. Nova is currently on track to rejoin the team in June after having surgery late last April.
  • Andrew Bailey (shoulder) is expected to be a healthy and active pitcher in Spring Training. He missed all of last season following shoulder capsule surgery. “He’s in a throwing program, and there’s been nothing adverse reported from him,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler.
  • Slade Heathcott (knee) is also expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. He had knee surgery last offseason and another one in June. “His progressions are moving forward really positively. The last checkup we had, he’s able to do full baseball activities, it’s just (a question of) how regular and how long of a duration,” said Eppler.
  • Johnny Barbato (elbow) is healthy and will start the season on time after missing the second half of 2014 with an elbow strain. “He was cleared and good to go,” said Eppler while noting Barbato healed up in time to pitch in Instructional League for the Padres last fall. The Yankees acquired Barbato in the Shawn Kelley trade.
  • And finally, Ty Hensley (face) has already resumed throwing bullpen sessions after he was viciously attacked during the holidays, according to his Twitter feed. Hensley’s jaw had to be wired shut due to the attack so he’ll likely lose some weight. He might have to rebuild some strength before the Yankees turn him loose this summer.

Judge, Severino, Bird, Lindgren, Refsnyder headline Spring Training invitees list

Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)
Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)

Two weeks from tomorrow, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa for the start of Spring Training 2015. Baseball’s getting closer, folks. On Thursday, the Yankees officially announced their list of Spring Training invitees, a list that runs 66 (!) players deep.

As a reminder, everyone on the 40-man roster automatically goes to big league Spring Training, because duh. Here’s the 40-man roster and here are the 26 non-40-man roster players who have been invited to big league camp, which include some of the Yankees’ top prospects:

POSITION PLAYERS
C Francisco Arcia
C Trent Garrison
C Juan Graterol
C Kyle Higashioka
C Eddy Rodriguez
1B Greg Bird
1B Kyle Roller
IF Cito Culver
IF Cole Figueroa
IF Jonathan Galvez
IF Nick Noonan
IF Rob Refsnyder
OF Jake Cave
OF Slade Heathcott
OF Aaron Judge

PITCHERS
RHP Andrew Bailey
RHP Scott Baker
RHP Jose Campos
RHP Nick Goody
LHP Jacob Lindgren
RHP Diego Moreno
LHP James Pazos
RHP Wilking Rodriguez
RHP Nick Rumbelow
RHP Luis Severino
LHP Tyler Webb

Obviously the biggest names here are Judge, Bird, Severino, Refsnyder, and Lindgren, five of the team’s very best prospects. Lindgren, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft, has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster. So does Refsnyder, but he has more bodies ahead of him on the depth chart. I can’t see any scenario in which Judge, Severino, or Bird make the roster out of camp.

Bailey has been rehabbing from shoulder capsule surgery for nearly two years now and appears to finally be healthy. Could he step in and close with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller working as setup men? Bailey has closer experience, you know. Graterol, Figueroa, Galvez, Noonan, Baker, and the two Rodriguezes were added a minor league free agents for depth this winter. The rest are farm system products. Guys looking to put themselves on the map for a midseason call-up.

Teams always need extra catchers to help catch all those early-Spring Training bullpen sessions, which is why the Yankees are bringing five non-roster backstops to camp in addition to the four catchers already on the 40-man roster. The last bullpen spot is up for grabs — it could be more than one if Adam Warren and/or Esmil Rogers are needed to help the rotation — so camp is a big opportunity for these pitchers, especially guys like Rumbelow, Webb, Goody, and Pazos, who aren’t top prospects.

Sherman: Yankees re-sign Slade Heathcott to minor league contract

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have re-signed Slade Heathcott to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The team non-tendered Heathcott back in November, allowing him to come off the 40-man roster without passing through waivers. They did the same with Jose Campos, who also re-signed.

Heathcott, 24, played only nine games last season due to a pair of knee surgeries — his season started late following offseason surgery and ended early due to another procedure in June. The invitation to big league Spring Training is an indication Heathcott either is healthy now or expected to be ready to play by time camp opens.

In parts of six minor league seasons since being the 29th overall pick in the 2009 draft — the compensation pick the Yankees received for failing to sign Gerrit Cole in 2008 — Heathcott has hit .268/.346/.404 in only 309 career games. He’s had lots of shoulder and knee problems, including multiples surgery on each.

Assuming he’s healthy to start the regular season, Heathcott could head to Triple-A Scranton after playing 112 games with Double-A Trenton from 2013-14. A return to the Thunder is always possible, as is starting down in High-A Tampa to shake off the rust. We’ll have to see how the upper level outfields shake out. Lots of candidates.

Cashman confirms Yankees will try to re-sign Slade Heathcott and Jose Campos

Campos. (AP)
Campos. (AP)

The Yankees will try to re-sign both outfielder Slade Heathcott and right-hander Jose Campos to minor league contracts, Brian Cashman told Andrew Marchand last Friday. Both players missed the entire 2014 season due to injury — Heathcott did play in nine games, but c’mon — and were non-tendered last week along with left-hander David Huff.

By non-tendering Heathcott and Campos, the Yankees were able to remove them from the 40-man roster without exposing them to waivers. They would have had to clear waivers had the team outrighted or released them, and there’s a decent chance one or both would have been claimed since they’re relatively young and have potential. The non-tender was the best way to try to keep them as non-40-man roster players.

Although they are both free agents right now, changing organizations isn’t always that appealing to guys like Heathcott and Campos, as J.J. Cooper explained last week:

The now-free agent can opt to sign with someone else, but that’s often not as appealing as returning to the organization one already knows. Go to another organization and you’re often just another guy. Stick with your existing organization and you have a few coaches, a signing scout or a roving instructor who is sticking up for you in organization meetings.

We don’t know for sure that Heathcott or Campos will re-sign with the Yankees, and (ex-Reds righty Curtis) Partch could try to make another team’s bullpen. But it’s a slight advantage in a business where teams are looking for any advantage.

Heathcott, 24, has played only 309 games since being the team’s first round pick in the 2009 draft due to a series of shoulder and knee injuries. Knee procedures limited him to those nine games this summer. The 22-year-old Campos has only thrown 111.2 innings — all with Low-A Charleston — since being acquired from the Mariners as the second piece in the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade. He missed most of 2012 with an elbow fracture and all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery.

At the time of the non-tender, neither Heathcott nor Campos were among New York’s top prospects. Their prospect status has taken a big hit over the last year or two due to the continued injury problems. They’re still interesting, but not much more than that.