Here’s a link of interest: David Laurila of FanGraphs recently spoke to top outfield prospects Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin during Double-A Trenton’s recently trip to Portland. Both players spoke about their offensive approach and swings, as did Thunder hitting coach Justin Turner. They talked about adjustments they’ve made, things they’re working on, stuff like that. It’s a very interesting and informative ready. Both guys seem to get it, so to speak. Check it out.
I’ve decided to modify DotF (in an undetermined way) this year for the sake of saving time and my sanity, but one feature that will not be changed is the Prospect Watch. Well, the featured player may change, but the format will remain mostly the same.
Last year we tracked outfielder Mason Williams‘ progress through the summer, and he rewarded us by hitting .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) with 11 homers and 20 steals in 397 plate appearances before separating his left shoulder diving for a ball in late-July. The Prospect Watch was unused after the injury. In prior years we’ve tracked Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Andrew Brackman, Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, and a bunch of others I’m forgetting. It’s been a while.
We should have a healthy debate for this year’s watch subject because the Yankees have four pretty awesome position player prospects, all of whom are worthy of a spot in our sidebar. There’s not much on the pitcher side right now, but that’s alright. Position players are more fun because they play everyday anyway. Just as we did last year, let’s vote on the 2013 Prospect Watch. First, the candidates with their rank on my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List in parenthesis.
OF Tyler Austin (3)
I’m listing these guys alphabetically, but it’s also appropriate to start with Austin. The 21-year-old former catcher is the best statistical performer among the organization’s top prospects, hitting .322/.400/.559 (~163 wRC+) with 17 homers and 23 steals (in 25 attempts) in 472 plate appearances across four levels last summer. He’s expected to open the year with Double-A Trenton and has an outside chance of cracking the big league roster come September.
RHP Jose Campos (7)
I wanted to get at least one pitcher in the conversation, and the 20-year-old Campos was the obvious choice — Banuelos (#6 in my top 30) will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery while last year’s first rounder Ty Hensley (#8) could start the year back in Extended Spring Training and not even appear in an official game until June. Campos, who pitched to a 4.01 ERA and 3.24 FIP in five starts before a season-ending elbow injury last year, is healthy and ready to start the season back with Low-A Charleston. An assignment to High-A Tampa might even be in the cards, but that would be aggressive.
OF Slade Heathcott (4)
Heathcott, 22, is the old man of the group. He missed the first half with his second left shoulder surgery last year, then hit .307/.378/.470 (142 wRC+) in 265 plate appearances with High-A Tampa before destroying the Arizona Fall League (192 wRC+). Heathcott is healthy now (for the time being, anyway) and has the loudest package of tools in the organization. He’s slated to join Austin in the Double-A Trenton outfield.
C Gary Sanchez (1)
The team’s top prospect (in my opinion), the 20-year-old Sanchez hit .290/.344/.485 (~125 wRC+) in 474 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last summer. His 18 homers led all minor league catchers. Sanchez is expected to begin the season back with Tampa, but a midseason promotion to Double-A Trenton is well within reach.
OF Mason Williams (2)
We’ve never had a two-time Prospect Watch guy, but there’s no rule that says we can’t do it. Williams, 21, has recovered from his shoulder injury — an injury that required surgery — and will join Sanchez back with High-A Tampa to open the summer. Although I ranked him as the team’s second best prospect, Baseball America had Williams in the top spot.
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A few times in the past the Prospect Watch choice was obvious, but that’s not really the case here. Some of these guys might put up gaudier stats than others, but they’re all quality prospects worth monitoring as the season progresses.
Had things gone according to plan, Brett Gardner would have been manning center field all year rather than during the first four of five weeks of the season. Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm put an end to the position switch experiment before it really even had a chance to start, as Joe Girardi confirmed Granderson will return to his usual center field spot when healthy. Given how much offense the Yankees have lost to free agent defections and injury, getting their top homer hitter back in the lineup as soon as possible will be the priority, not the position switch.
It will be Gardner for the first few weeks of the season, but he’ll slide back to use usual spot in left as soon as Granderson is healthy. The soon-to-be 32-year-old is coming off a .232/.319/.492 (116 wRC+) line with a team-best 43 homers in 2012, though his season can be split into two halves: .248/.352/.502 (130 wRC+) with 23 homers and a 25.9% strikeout rate in the first half, then .212/.278/.480 (98 wRC+) with 20 homers and a 31.8% strikeout rate in the second half. His miserable postseason showing — 3-for-30 with 16 strikeouts — was the icing on the cake.
The root cause of Granderson’s second half slide is so unclear the Yankees sent him to an eye doctor after the season. Tests came back showing unusual. His first/second half BABIP split (.282/.233) was propped up by an increase in fly balls (38.3%/51.1%), though pitchers did throw him fewer fastballs (57.2%/53.7%). Not a ridiculous amount though. Whatever happened in the second half, I can’t really explain it. Could be something obvious I’m not seeing or it could be something completely under-the-radar. I’m guessing the latter. Whether it’s correctable is something we won’t know until he actually gets back on the field.
Regardless of why the second half slump happened, the Yankees need Granderson’s power and that’s something he provided even when struggling. He hits homers at home (56 since revamping his swing in August 2010), on the road (41), against righties (64), against lefties (33), with men on-base (42), with the bases empty (55) … pretty much all the time. Granderson is one of the few batters who bats with a man in scoring position all the time — even when the bases are empty — because his ability to go deep at any moment is a game-changer. The Yankees have been known for that kind of offense basically forever, but this season will be different and that makes the Grandyman that much more important.
In addition to all of that, this is Granderson’s walk year. He’ll become a free agent after the season for the first the in his career, and his power production will get him paid regardless. Whether he has a big year like 2011 (145 wRC+) or just a merely above-average year like 2012 (116 wRC+) will determine if he gets Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) or Nick Swisher money (four years, $56M). The Bombers could sure use a nice big contract push from their center fielder, but more importantly, they just need to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible.
Technically it is Gardner even though he’ll open the year playing center everyday. The Yankees showed last season they’re willing to play Ichiro Suzuki in center on occasion, so he’s a backup option as well. There’s also Melky Mesa, who could open the season with the big league club and is another legitimate center field candidate. Despite losing Granderson, the Bombers have no shortage of capable center fielders at the Major League level.
Knocking on the Door
Before Granderson’s injury, it was likely Mesa was going to open the season as the everyday center fielder with Triple-A Scranton. He is third on the center field depth chart — I do the Yankees would play Melky2.0 out there everyday before Ichiro Suzuki if both Granderson and Gardner got hurt — and is sorta like a poor man’s version of a right-handed Granderson offensively. Mesa has power and speed and contact issues, but he’s a much better defender with a very strong arm. If he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training as Granderson’s replacement, Melky will wait in Triple-A and assuredly resurface in the Bronx at some point this simmer.
The Top Prospect
You can make a very strong case that New York’s two best prospects are both center fielders. Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott ranked second and fourth on my preseason top 30 prospects list, respectively, but not many would argue if I had them one-two in either order. Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) in 397 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last season before needing season-ending left shoulder surgery — he hurt himself while diving for a ball in the outfield — in late-July. He’s a ballhawk in center with big-time speed and range, though his arm is just okay and his routines need to be refined. Williams signed for $1.45M as the Yankees’ fourth rounder in 2010, but he needs to work on a number of things. The raw tools are as impressive as they come though. He’ll open the season back at High-A Tampa and will hopefully stay healthy and get a ton of at-bats as the leadoff man.
Heathcott, meanwhile, returned from his second left shoulder surgery at midseason to hit .307/.378/.470 (142 wRC+) in 265 plate appearances with High-A Tampa in 2012 before catching some extra at-bats in the Arizona Fall League. The 22-year-old has the best all-around package of tools in the organization, with power and patience from the left side of the plate to go with high-end speed and defense in center. Heathcott can over-swing at times and struggle to make contact, but that should work itself out with more experience. Health is an issue though, in part because he plays all-out all the time and hurts himself by diving for balls and running into walls. Slade has yet to play in more than 76 regular season games since signing for $2.2M as the team’s first round pick in 2009, so staying on the field all year will be priority number one this season. He’ll open the year at Double-A Trenton and since he’s due to be added to the 40-man roster following the season (to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 Draft), there’s a chance we’ll see him as a September call-up.
The Deep Sleeper
Could it be Ravel Santana at this point? The 20-year-old had a miserable season with Short Season Staten Island last summer — .216/.304/.289 (84 wRC+) with three homers and 27.5% strikeouts in 247 plate appearances — after coming back from the devastating ankle injury that ended his 2011 campaign prematurely. Two years ago he was a budding star after dominating the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate, but the injury sapped some athleticism and cost him balance at the plate. If he regains his previous form as he matures and gets further away from surgery, Santana is likely to join the ranks of Williams and Heathcott. If not, he’ll be a non-prospect. I ranked him 28th on my preseason top 30 list and he’ll join Low-A Charleston this year. It’s a weird situation, but there is some breakout potential here.
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Even though Granderson is going to miss the start of the season, the Yankees are in good shape regarding the center field position. Gardner is a more than capable replacement — both short- and long-term — and Ichiro can fill-in no problem if needed. New York will also have legitimate prospects playing center in Triple-A (Mesa), Double-A (Heathcott), High-A (Williams), and Low-A (Santana). That’s exciting. Once Curtis is healthy, center field will join second base as the deepest positions in the organization.
Heathcott, 22, hurt himself (surprise!) when he ran into Ronnie Mustelier at full speed the other day (video). No word on his timetable yet. The Yankees have been taking it easy on the 28-year-old Logan so far in camp, but that apparently hasn’t helped. He’s coming off a career-high workload that included a league-leading 80 appearances.
Baseball America published their annual (and long-awaited) list of the best 100 prospects in baseball today, a list that is predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Unlike last year, when their were two legitimate number one candidates in Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Profar is the clear top prospect this year. Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top three.
Like last year, the Yankees placed four players on the top 100. OF Mason Williams ranked the highest at #32, and was followed by C Gary Sanchez (#57), OF Slade Heathcott (#63), and OF Tyler Austin (#77). Those four were ranked #35, #18, #57, and #52, respectively, by Keith Law earlier this month, so Baseball America isn’t quite as high on them. Here is the publication’s top ten prospects list for reference.
The crew at Baseball America slapped 20-80 scouting scale grades on each of the top 100 prospects in a subscriber-only feature, which is nice and easy for the Yankees since they’re all position players.
Those are future grades, not present, meaning the players are expected to grow into that kind of power, etc. down the line. Three of the four project to have five average-or-better tools down the line, which is pretty amazing. Baseball America may be high on Austin’s right field defense and speed and a little low on Sanchez’s bat, but they’re the experts. Still a nice collection of tools, especially in the hit and power departments.
The Yankees ranked 11th in Baseball America’s preliminary farm system rankings back in January, and the official list will be released in the coming weeks. There haven’t been many big farm system-altering trades since the preliminary rankings came out, so I don’t expect them to change much. As I wrote in my Top 30 List a few weeks ago, the Yankees have a top-heavy farm system with quite a big drop-off between these four and everyone else. Four top-100 guys is still pretty strong though, not many organizations can match that.
For the first time in several years, the Yankees do not have an obvious top prospect. Manny Banuelos was the easy (but not necessarily slam dunk) choice last season and Jesus Montero indisputably sat atop the team’s prospect list for years, but right now there is no real consensus. They do have four legitimate top prospect candidates though, so it’s not like they’re hurting for talent.
By now you know those four players: catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Slade Heathcott. Baseball America ranked Williams number one earlier this winter while Keith Law and John Sickels each had Sanchez in the top spot. If you spend some time scouring the interwebs, you’ll sure find other lists with Heathcott and Austin sitting at number one. I think we can all agree there wouldn’t be much argument with any of this guys being called New York’s best minor leaguer.
My personal top 30 prospects list comes out tomorrow, but you’ll have to wait until then to see I have at number one. For now I just want to poll the audience to see who you folks think is the team’s top prospect. Here’s a quick review of each guys credential’s (listed alphabetically)…
OF Tyler Austin
Austin, 21, was the best player in the farm system last season, hitting .322/.400/.559 with 17 homers and 23 stolen bases while playing at four different levels. The Yankees have moved him around the field a bit, but last year he settled into right field. Regardless, he’s a bat-first prospect.
OF Slade Heathcott
The 22-year-old Heathcott missed the first half with his second shoulder surgery in as many offseasons, but he returned to hit .302/.380/.461 with five homers and 19 steals in 65 total games. He tore the cover off the ball — .388/.494/.612 in 18 games — in the Arizona Fall League after the season. If that’s not good enough, his defense\ive skills in center and damn near elite.
C Gary Sanchez
No minor league catcher hit more homers than the 20-year-old Sanchez in 2012, who went deep 18 times while hitting .290/.344/.485 across two levels. Thanks to his greatly improved defense, he’s likely to remain behind the plate long-term. Sanchez might be the most gifted hitter in the system, and he does it at the most premium position.
OF Mason Williams
Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 with 11 homers and 20 steals in 91 games between two levels last season, though a shoulder injury — suffered while diving for a ball in the outfield — ended his season in late-August. Williams offers high-end center field defense like Heathcott, but he doesn’t have the same ugly injury history.
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With all due respect to the other players in the system, these four clearly stand out from the pack. They’re all not only extremely talented, but they all produced in a big way this past season. Which one is the best? I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
Keith Law published his list of baseball’s top 110 prospects yesterday, and he followed up today by releasing individual top ten prospects lists for each American League club (subs. req’d). The top five prospects are the same guys from the top 110 yesterday (in the same order), and numbers six through ten are RHP Ty Hensley, LHP Manny Banuelos, RHP Jose Campos, RHP Mark Montgomery, and 2B Angelo Gumbs.
Within the write-up, Law notes the system is top-heavy with high-end guys, and their only real impact prospects for 2013 are Montgomery and RHP Dellin Betances if he takes to the bullpen. He lists Hensley as the organization’s sleeper, saying the shoulder abnormality hasn’t stopped him from running his fastball up to 98, and “if he can just show that kind of stuff and last for a 120-140 inning season in 2013, he’s a likely top-100 guy.” Interestingly enough, he notes the Yankees love OF Ben Gamel, and they expect him to show more power this summer after bulking up thanks to his offseason conditioning program.