Scouting the Double A Yankees – Mets Hitters: Havens/Den Dekker/Adams/Almonte

June 13, 2012

I posted a report yesterday about the pitchers I saw during the two games I saw between the B-Mets and Trenton Thunder. This report is about the hitters I saw. One hitter, Matt Den Dekker, was subsequently promoted to Triple-A Buffalo right after the series with Trenton. It’s funny, but the same thing happened with Jordany Valdespin, who was promoted immediately after I saw him play last year in Trenton.

If an B-Mets players want me to come out next time they are in town, I do take donations.

I asked one of the B-Mets players on Sunday when Den Dekker was getting the promotion, and the kid smiled, likely knowing it was soon. Looking at the Buffalo roster that night it was apparent Den Dekker was better than a couple of the Bison outfielders. And the success Kirk Nieuwenhuis has had in the majors was probably another factor to push the other left-handed hitting center fielder.

The B-Mets show a deep lineup, with one player, Josh Rodriguez, having 14 plate appearances (PAs)  in 2011 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. There is power from the top through the seven spot, and a nice mix of right-handed and left handed hitters.

Reese Havens

Once again Havens will not have a full season of baseball, having missed most of April with another injury, this time a bad back/oblique. However, he is healthy for now, and back with Binghamton. Being the top pick in 2008, many Mets fans had hoped Havens would already be in the majors by now or at least knocking on the door.

Havens showed his quick bat once again, and his swing is similar Yankees Triple-A second baseman Corban Joseph. He homered and singled on Saturday night, but also struck out five times in 10 PAs. His inability to make consistent contact is recognition of pitch location, specifically the upper and lower levels of the strike zone. Once Havens gets more reps his recognition will improve and so will his contact rates and offensive output.

In the field, Havens showed more range than he had last year, grabbing two ground balls clearly destined for center field.

However, another injury or two and it might be too late for Havens to have a decent career. He needs to stay on the field and get his reps. He’s not as good a hitter as Jason Kipnis of Cleveland, but has potential to be Kipnis lite.

Matt Den Dekker

As mentioned above, Den Dekker was promoted to Buffalo after the series with Trenton. Den Dekker has improved his power this season, banging out eight home runs, 21 doubles and four triples. His bat is much quicker than last year, with an improved swing path, much more direct to the ball.

In my notes from last season, I had written Den Dekker swung at lots of bad pitches, mostly breaking pitches in the dirt. However, these last two games showed to be a more patient (but still aggressive) hitter. He recognized pitches out of the zone, but was aggressive early in the count to attack hittable pitches. If you have read any of my prior pieces, you know I love aggressive hitters early in the count.

Den Dekker will be a doubles machine at the higher levels, with his above average speed as much as his gap power and ability to hit line drives down the RF line. His fourth inning double saw him get behind 0-2 to Brett Marshall but banged a hanging slider into the RF corner. He was also aggressive on other first pitches throughout the series.

Funny, but even though Den Dekker is a pretty good outfielder, more to his great speed rather than his initial routes*, during night games I have twice seen him muff long drives to centerfield in Trenton – once last season and once this past Saturday night.

*Some people think that route running is very important. It is important, but not for really fast guys. I have seen outfielders such as Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson and Den Dekker change their routes during fly balls, but turn on that “extra gear” to outrun the ball. Curtis Granderson is pretty good in center field, but always seems to change his routes. Routes are more important to slower outfielders who can’t outrun the ball. It is one of the more difficult skills to master in baseball.

If Den Dekker continues to hit in Buffalo and Jason Bay continues to struggle in the majors, don’t be surprised if Den Dekker gets a call in August.

Jefry Marte

Marte has skills to hit, with quick and strong hands, with good lower body movement to drive the ball. However, based upon the way he carried himself, it appears that Marte lacks drive. I only saw three PAs since Marte appeared to hurt his hand during a swing and was removed in Saturday night’s game. (UPDATE: Actually, Marte hurt his hand on a ground ball which popped up and hit his hand. A ball which almost took his face off.)

Anyway, his power numbers are improving each season, and will continue as he ages and gets naturally stronger. Some people feel they need to write a kid off if he doesn’t produce huge power numbers at the lower levels, but Marte was 17/18 to begin in Low-A Savannah (19 his second season) and not many kids translate raw power to games at that level. In addition, Marte is not listed on any top Mets prospect list, which might build into his favor and he has to work to get noticed again.

Marte might be one of those guys whose power readily improves as he matures – both physically and mentally. Give him time, let him play and he likely will surprise people.

Juan Lagares

Lagares is a guy who does lots of things decent, but nothing great. He started to hit last season in time split between High-A and Double-A, but is aggressive in that he doesn’t walk much or strikeout. But even with this aggressiveness, there is simply no power production, and his swing seems to bear out that it will not get there, either.

Lagares shows good range in the outfield, with a strong throwing arm, but without any significant offensive tools, his defense might get him to the majors, but it won’t be as a full-time starter.

David Adams

Finally back on the field after basically two seasons off from a busted ankle, Adams showed why the Yankees have been patient with the RHH hitter.

Adams showed tremendous plate discipline, the ability to recognize pitches early out of the hand, and the intelligence to read the pitcher based upon what was thrown to prior hitters. Over the two games, Adams consistently took very tough sliders off the outside part of the plate, not even twitching towards the pitch. Once, after a particularly tough slider from Greg Peavey, I blurted out “Wow, tough pitch!”

Adams also took tough change ups and fastballs just off the plate Friday night from left-handed Darin Gorski, waiting patiently for his pitch when ahead in the count.

It was when he got his pitch did Adams pounce. Despite going 1-7, a double, walk, K, and sac fly, Adams hit the ball hard three other times. He has quick hands, nice lower body rotation and remained balanced throughout his swing. He hit the ball hard to left and right field, ahead and behind the count, hammering a two-strike pitch from Peavey on the outside corner to RF for a sac fly.

He hasn’t hit for power yet this season, but with more reps the power will come back.

Adams also is a better fielder than I thought. He gets to ground balls well, has good hands and turns a quick double play, not flinching when a runner was charging towards second base. This was important since his injury was a lower body one, and second baseman sometimes get their legs taken out from them.

Adams has potential to help the Yankees (or another major league team) within two years, or be trade bait for an outfielder. With Cano in New York and Corban Joseph moving ahead of him, it’s not like the Yankees have much room at the second base area. However, Adams has played some third base in the past, and it is likely he could begin taking some reps there later in the season.

Zoilo Almonte

I was surprised when Zoilo Almonte performed well in spring training and began to become talked about in the blogosphere about possibly being the next Yankee starting outfielder. Even Joe Girardi heaped praise on Z.A.

Why was I surprised? I just don’t think Almonte is major league caliber. I saw him last summer after his promotion to Trenton and saw a guy who constantly got beat on hard stuff inside, then waved (and missed) at the better breaking balls he finally began to see. Looking at his career numbers, I noticed Almonte (like many hitters before him – Brett Gardner was one), who struggled at a new level when promoted but when they started the next year at that same level begins to produce.

But Almonte is the same hitter as he was last season, and has not yet produced at Double-A.

He was late on inside fastballs, and while he didn’t wave at many breaking balls out of the zone, there were a couple of instances where he was overmatched, like the first pitch slider from Adrian Rosario in the 10th inning on Sunday.

Almonte has some tools, but is prone to get on hot streaks and then cool off.  Zoilo is not going to replace Swisher in RF anytime soon, and likely will not help the Yankees in any significant way down the road. I like Melky Mesa much more than either of the Almonte’s.

Melky Mesa

There once was a time I thought Melky Mesa could strike out 200 times in a full season at Double-A. In fact, if both stayed healthy, I predicted he and Bradley Suttle would combine for 350 Ks in Trenton. But both were hurt part of the year in 2011. And Suttle has basically retired.

I saw last year that Mesa began to lay off many out of the zone off speed pitches at Trenton. He was also becoming more selective on pitches in the zone, too. However, he did continue to strike out at alarming rates, usually around 30%. That is not good for a guy who can really run, and should pattern his game more around his legs.

Mesa was even more selective this past weekend. A big at bat was his working a two-out walk in the bottom of the 10th inning, eventually scoring the winning run in Sunday’s game. He regularly took pitches just off the plate, both fastballs and breaking pitches, and used his hand speed to hammer a few pitches in his zone. Mesa has no trouble catching up to good fastballs, and with his bat speed and slight loft in his swing, he does put good backspin on the ball and hit some major league quality deep fly balls.

Many of those will eventually go out of the park. He does have seven home runs already this season, playing half his games in the challenging Waterfront Park.

Mesa has tremendous speed, a great throwing arm and covers lots of ground in CF. With the lack of quality outfielders at their higher levels, it is time to give Mesa an opportunity to test his newfound plate discipline at the Triple-A level.

Cody Johnson

I saw Johnson last year and he was a mess. Bounced his hands up and down, huge hitch and went from A to C on his swing with a big layover at B. After all this movement, he couldn’t hit anything inside with any velocity. He went for 34% Ks in 2008 and progressed each year to a high of 41% last season.

It was amazing then when I saw Johnson in April of this year, and his hands started down near his back hip, raised up slightly on ball travel, then Johnson would flick his hands out (a la Rod Carew) on his swing. This new style produced much better contact rates, lots of base hits, quite a few home runs and mucho less strikeouts. Thunder hitting coach Tom Slater helped Johnson with his new approach, something which begun in the offseason.

All good things for Johnson and his team.

However, to my surprise Johnson was back to his old (and less productive) ways this past weekend. He was in the midst of a huge slump (3 for 30, 17 Ks) entering the B-Mets series. I do not know if Johnson reverted back to his old way after his slump began or whether the new/old method of hitting precipitated the slump.

Whatever the reason, Johnson is back to missing fastballs, striking out lots and making very little contact. Johnson whiffed three times Sunday afternoon, getting pummeled by belt high fastballs over the middle of the plate by Greg Peavey. He did hit two balls hard, but the pitchers mistakenly threw him off speed pitches over the outer two-thirds allowing Johnson to quicken his bat.

His bat path is once again A to B to C, which translates to many more Ks down the road.

Johnson will hit his home runs because he has immense power in hitting mistakes, but he might want to revert bakc to the shorter swing path if he wants to move up and succeed in the organization.


Scouting the Double-A level Yankees – Mets pitchers: Gorski/Peavey/Marshall

June 12, 2012

After a few solid weeks of scouting high school and college games, and watching my former college and high school teams win their respective National and State titles, I am back to watching the pro game and will begin evaluating various minor (and major) league talent.

I saw two games between the Double-A Binghamton Mets and Trenton Thunder, the Yankees affiliate. It’s my second trip to Trenton.I travelled to Trenton earlier in the season, watching the April 21, 2012 Double-A game between the Trenton Thunder and Harrisburg Senators. You can see my report on that game here.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see top prospect Zack Wheeler pitch or the underrated Collin McHugh throw. Here is a report o n McHugh from last year. See, the Mets now have a SIX man rotation at Binghamton. I would bet big money the Mets pitchers don’t like it one bit.  

I will discuss the Yankees – Mets pitchers first.

On Saturday night, Binghamton’s Darin Gorski matched up against Shaeffer Hall, a guy who is always on the mound when I go to see a game. See April game link above. Hall seems to have lower velocity readings every time I see him (FB now around 84) and gets hit around quite often when he doesn’t get the calls on the corner. His future is maybe as a lefty reliever since his breaking pitch is usually pretty good against LHH.

Darin Gorski

Gorski is a tall left hander (6’4”, 200 lb.) who’s big out pitch is a very nice change up. He was not on the radar until last season, when he posted an 11-3, 2.08 ERA record with a WHIP below 1.00.

People have reasoned that Gorski’s ascent up the prospect ladder was because he was too old for the FSL (he was 23 last year), and I love that argument from people who never played baseball. Regardless of age, an ERA around 2.00 is pretty damn good no matter where you are pitching in pro baseball. It’s not like he was 23 and pitching against high school kids. Most of the FSL lineups consist of pretty good talent, guys who are trying to become major league ball players, and whether they are a year or two younger than Gorski should not be considered a “negative” on Gorski’s success.

Anyway, during this 2012 campaign Gorski has decent numbers at Double-A. Over 11 appearances, Gorski has a 4-3 record with an ERA under 4.00. His impressive hit numbers have remained steady in Double-A (7.9 H/9), but his walk rate has jumped (4.0/9 IP), and K/rate has dropped a little (7.2/9 IP).

Saturday night Gorski was pretty good, limiting the Thunder lineup to seven hits, very few which were hit hard, walking none and striking out four.

Gorski was usually 88-91, a few times bumping up but was back to the velocity of his 2009-2010 seasons. There was some talk of him consistently sitting in the low 90s last season, but I did not see this Saturday night. He could extend his stride more and clean up his timing to get this velocity back. His breaking ball (slurvy curve/slider) was ineffective with no bite and Gorski seemed to give up on it as the night wore on. That is something he should NOT do, especially in a game like this which was over by the middle innings.

However, what I did see was an impressive change up, a pitch which constantly kept the Thunder hitters off-balance. This pitch has nice drop (almost looking like a split without the tumble), but not much fade. When they weren’t swinging and missing this pitch, the hitters were hitting lazy fly balls. This change up is likely the reason Gorski has a significant fly ball rate, and low BABIP.

He simply doesn’t allow a whole lot of hard hit balls.

He showed a good ability to throw fastballs to spots on both sides of the plate, and was not afraid to come inside versus right-handed hitters, even backing up an inside fastball to a RHH with another. He did get three of his strikeouts on called third strikes against RHH.

I like Gorski as he has a pitchability factor, but unless he gets control of his breaking ball, his future is limited. I do believe guys can be two-pitch pitchers, but they both have to be plus and without some fade to his change, hitters at the higher levels will learn to lay off the pitch or just wait for it. And without a consistent breaking ball, Gorski likely does not have a future as a lefty reliever.

One interesting feature about Gorski is his success against teams not located in New Hampshire. In three starts against the Fisher Cats, Gorski is 0-2, 11.70 ERA with almost three runners per inning. Against other teams, he has darn good numbers.

In Sunday’s game, the mound matchup was pretty good with the B-Mets Greg Peavey opposing Brett Marshall. Both were drafted out of high school by the Yankees, but while Marshall eagerly signed (almost a million bucks will do that), Peavey went to Oregon State and was later selected by the Mets.

Greg Peavey

Peavey went five innings (99 pitches), and was consistently 90-92 with several 93s. He threw a sharp breaking curveball, much like a slider with severe downward break. Quite a few times he tended to get on the side of it, with the pitch flattening out and backing up. He went after most hitters, especially the weaker ones and was in trouble only once. However, except for the contact challenged Cody Johnson, Peavey didn’t get many swing and misses.

Peavey fields his position very well, twice going after slow dribblers down the 3rd base line showing good athleticism. What I liked about both plays was that Peavey got his chest over the ball both times, not simply reaching for it, which oftentimes leads to dropping the ball before the throw or making a bad throw via improper balance.

Peavey didn’t show much consistency, can’t put guys away and from the one start I have seen, doesn’t have much of a chance to start for the big club if he continues this trend.

Armando Rodriguez

Since Peavey only went five innings, the bullpen needed to get in some overtime. The first guy out of the pen was Armando Rodriguez, a hulking figure who basically said “Here it is, see if you can hit it” with a 92-93 MPH fastball, which seemed to get up to the hitter even faster and has a natural cutting action. According to a couple B-Mets I spoke with, Rodriguez simply attempts to throws it over the middle of the plate. But on this day, he was peppering the outside corner to every RHH on pitch after pitch with his fastball, getting lots of called strikes and weak contact over his three very efficient innings.

He located a slider pretty well, too, but it’s not a great pitch. It’s basically a pitch which is a velocity change to his fastball. I am surprised he didn’t throw a change up much, because I was told Rodriguez was working on one and it showed promise. Rodriguez (who is reminiscent of another Armando Mets fans should know), up until this season has been a starter his entire career, but with a plethora of Mets minor league starting pitchers, was switched to the bullpen. His already impressive numbers are now even better.

If Rodriguez can continue locate that fastball to the outside corner like he did Sunday, and improve his slider, Rodriguez could be an option in the major league bullpen down the road.

Adrian Rosario

After A-Rod’s three solid innings and a shaky 9th inning by former top arm Brad Holt, B-Mets closer Adrian Rosario came in to close out the game. Rosario was part of the K-Rod trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. He is a wiry 6”4”, 180 pound, 22-year-old RHP with a solid fastball which ranged from 92-94 with several 95s. He showed a good change up around 85 with solid movement and a sharp breaking slider thrown at 82. Rosario throws from the extreme first base side of the rubber, has solid arm action and drives straight to the plate. Very clean all around.

Rosario got the first two outs in the 9th, but then allowed a bloop single to right field based solely on the notorious “no doubles” defense where the outfielders were playing on the warning track. He ended up walking the next hitter, throwing a wild pitch and giving up a game winning two-run soft line drive single.

What impressed me about Rosario was his first pitch to Zoilo Almonte with two outs, nobody on. After starting both prior hitters with popping fastballs, Rosario began Almonte with a sharp breaking slider to garner a quick swing and miss. He then came in to Almonte with a fastball, jamming him.

What I didn’t like was him not locating pitches to either of the first two hitters. He got behind on David Adams before Adams lined out and after all other pitchers this day were getting Cody Johnson out on inside fastballs, Rosario allowed him to get his arms out and drive a deep flyball to left center.

Rosario has potential and is a guy to keep an eye on. If he can continue to work ahead, his solid change up and slider will be even more effective.

Brett Marshall

When Brett Marshall was drafted, he was paid big money to keep him from a Rice University commitment. He started slowly, had Tommy John surgery, and then completely revamped his mechanics and mindset. Credit Danny Borrell, who had lots of one-on-one time with Marshall during his rehab, for this transformation. Borrell improved Marshall’s mechanics and talked the Yankees brass into allowing Brett to scrap his curveball and throw the slider – even after the TJS.

Marshall is much different now than he was two years ago. He looks more mature on the mound with natural aging filling out his formerly thinner frame.

With his new, smoother mechanics Marshall was pumping his fastball anywhere from 91-93, but rarely topping that. He effortlessly moved the ball in and out, mixing in all of his pitches just in the first inning!

He threw hard biting sliders to both LHHs Reese Havens and Matt Den Dekker, striking out both. The nasty slider (mostly 83-84 MPH), darted to the back foot of each lefty hitter. On one occasion in the third inning, Marshall got on the side of a slider to Havens then threw another one down and in on the next pitch for a swing and miss. Marshall realized he overthrew the first one, then relaxed and threw a better pitch. The slider was tough to hit all day long, heading to the back foot to LHH, and mostly right on the outside corner to RHH.

He flashed a pretty good change up, too, anywhere from 79-81 MPH. This was thrown to right and lefty hitters, getting swings and misses from each side. However, the pitch was somewhat easily seen out of his hand with the fingers spread out above the ball. He did get a few up, some which were hit as fly balls to the outfield.

Marshall was efficient all day long, throwing strikes with all his pitches, making one mistake on a hanging slider which Den Dekker hit into the right field corner for a double. He later scored on a wild pitch when Marshall overthrew a change for a wild pitch, one pitch after getting the hitter to swing and miss on a great change up.

It was a pretty dominating performance, especially considering the B-Mets put out a darn good lineup which banged out 19 hits and 12 runs the night before, and 15 hits and nine runs two nights earlier. Over his last seven starts, Marshall has thrown 47 innings (at least 6 IP in each), allowing 35 hits, 14 walks and 29 Ks. His ERA over this stretch is 1.67, with most of the damage coming in two starts. Some people have lamented his lack of strikeouts over his career, but he did show strikeout stuff and generates lots of weak ground balls.

The Yankees are clearly limiting Marshall’s innings as they pulled him after six great innings, and he had only throws 80 pitches. I heard the Yankees are high on Marshall and have no plans to trade him. If this is true, there is no reason to take him out in a game like this which he was dominating. They need to find out if he can get through the 7th inning, what I call the “money inning” as by consistently going seven innings in the majors, a pitcher will get the really big money come free agent contract time.  By getting through the 7th inning, starting pitchers help their teams in many ways; one major way is letting most of a major league bullpen rest for a night.

Most teams at this level would be wise to start getting starters and relievers into the major league mode, getting the better pitchers more work rather than allowing mop up guys (guys who have NO shot at the majors) “get their work in.” But that is a piece for another day.

Yankee Relievers

The Yankees used multiple relievers this weekend. On Friday night, Ryan Pope and Kelvin Perez got pounded. Perez has had a good year number wise, and although he did hit 95 Saturday night I have never been a fan of his. He is all over the place with no significant out pitch. Because Perez couldn’t get out of his first inning, Ryan Flannery threw 1.2 perfect innings throwing a splitter which acts much like a sharp dropping curve ball, moving down and away to RHH. He doesn’t throw as hard as I had him two years ago; sitting 88-90, but his split is a legitimate out pitch. He has worked his way very slowly through the system, and I hope he gets a shot before its too late.

Backing up Marshall on Sunday was Preston Claiborne, who was 93-95 with good pop, a change of pace slider with little bite but a pretty good change up having significant drop and fade. He threw inside very well and generally worked low in the zone all day. If he can limit walks, he is the type of relief guy the Yankees like with two solid offerings.


New York Yankee Minor League Report – Trenton Thunder (Shaeffer Hall, Christian Garcia)

April 24, 2012

I made a trip out to Trenton this past Saturday for a rare 5:05 start to watch the Thunder play host to the Washington Nationals Double-A affiliate, Harrisburg Senators.

Some seasons have seen Thunder manager Tony Franklin blessed with tremendous pitching staffs with zero hitting, and other seasons have seen him write in a tremendous lineup while wondering if his pitchers can limit the opposition to single digits.

This year he has both hitting and pitching somewhere in the middle.

On the mound for the Thunder was left hander Shaeffer Hall.

As a 25th round draft pick out of Kansas, Hall appeared nothing more than a sturdy arm for the organization. But I saw him throw two years ago in Charleston and Tampa and saw a pitcher with pretty good control and command, with pitching smarts to know how to attack hitters.

This pitching intelligence is much needed as Hall doesn’t throw overly hard. He was usually 88-89 in 2010, but was pretty much 84-86 all day long on Saturday. However, he is in his second season of throwing a cutter (with slider tilt and movement), which he can get in on the hands of right handed hitters.

It was this pitch and his changeup which kept hitters off balance and grounding the ball towards the extremely organizational infield the Thunder put out that day.

Hall is a pitcher who relies on changing speeds and location. He needs an umpire to give him the calls on the corners, then can work from there to expand the zone and get batters to chase pitches. This requires him to constantly get ahead and stay ahead of the hitter, which is always a good thing. If Hall gets an umpire with a tight zone, he has to come over the plate more and his stuff likely will not translate to quality outings.

A perfect example is when Hall tried to come inside to Jeff Kobernus, the Senators second baseman. Kobernus just missed powering two balls out of spacious Waterfront Park, but each drive was held up by a stiff wind, which allowed both deep drives to fall harmlessly into the glove of the Thunder left fielder.

Hall is a nice kid but his style doesn’t appear to be what the Yankees hierarchy likes in their starting pitchers. With injuries and ineffectiveness to hard throwers like Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and the 2011 released Andrew Brackman, maybe the Yankees should change their preferences to pitchers rather than throwers.

The Yankees also let Francisco Rondon throw the final inning, and he allowed a deep drive home run to center by Senators LF Chris Rahl (who had 3 RBI & was a double short of the cycle). Rondon was fluid with a fastball with some life, usually 89-91, and hit 93. He showed a pretty good slider (82-83), which he wasn’t able to control and a decent changeup, but which had a tendency to stay up.

Rondon has been in the organization since 2006 and has become less hittable as he has moved up, but also shown an increased inability to throw strikes. The way teams can always use hard throwing left handed relievers, Rondon has a chance to progress further but need to trust his stuff more.

Luke Murton has three hits on the day, but showed total pull tendencies, similar to what I saw in Charleston in 2010. His swing is mostly arms and upper body, barely using his lower half. I saw him reach for quite a few pitches during the day, out front but still put the good part of the bat on the ball indicating pretty good hand-eye coordination. He is a hard worker who is constantly working in the cage and oftentimes off a tee just minutes before a game, and has the personality and build of former Yankee Shelley Duncan.

Cody Johnson was a former first round pick for the Atlanta Braves in 2006 and came to the Yankees in a minor league trade. He had shown a tremendous ability in the past to swing and miss*, and this was attributed to a severe hitch which caused him to not get around on good fastballs. He also was susceptible on breaking stuff, especially when behind in the count. However, he has eliminated the hitch by keeping his hands really low, behind his back hip. They do come up slightly during his load, but not that much higher. This keeps Johnson’s path to the ball much quicker allowing him to wait longer on pitch recognition.

*Johnson’s strikeout rate has increased each season as a pro, going from 34% in 2008, to 35% in 2009, 39% in 2010 to 41% last year.

In one at bat, Johnson basically flicked his wrists the way Rod Carew used to for a nice line drive single to left center. In two other at bats, Johnson showed good power to left field (going with the pitch) putting balls to the warning track, one which likely would have been out for a booming homer if not for the strong wind blowing in.

He does hit the ball very hard when he makes contact, and with his new hand placement he has made better contact. I still believe better fastballs will eat him up inside (he was never tested inside during this game), but with his changes and improved contact rate (30% K rate thus far) while still hitting for power, he is someone to keep an eye on.

Zoilo Almonte, the 22 year old switch hitting outfielder who impressed Joe Girardi in spring training, is on the disable list and did not play. I saw him last year and he appeared overmatched in the couple games I saw. But, a la Brett Gardner, Zoilo does have a track record of struggling at a level when first promoted, then improving considerably when he returns to start at that same level the following year. 

The Senators had a few guys impress who I had not seen before. The aforementioned Kobernus, a second baseman is very quick to the ball. He stands very quiet at the plate until he unleashes a very quick swing, going direct to the ball. His swing has some loft which provided nice backspin. As I said earlier, he would have had two long home runs if not for the wind.  He also showed pretty good speed down the line on a ground ball. At same body type (6-2, 210 or so), the position he plays, and the fact they attended the same school (Cal), Kobernus reminds me of Jeff Kent. He might not hit with the power Kent developed but Kobernus can hit the ball, which will be his ticket to the higher levels.

Destin Hood is a former second round pick for the Nationals, one of those highly athletic “toolsy” guys who never seem to work out because they really don’t become baseball players. They don’t develop the instincts and work ethic to improve and advance beyond just playing the game. Hood has changed for the better since I saw him last in 2010 in the Low-A Sally League. Hood showed great bat speed and foot speed, easily beating out a slow roller to third base, and easily scored from first on ground ball down the left field line.

In his second at bat, Hood got behind two strikes, but calmly stayed off a cutter low and in from Hall. While Hood eventually struck out a better version of that pitch, he was on the ball with a good swing. Hood is aggressive at the plate, but has shown an improved ability to attack better pitches and to stay away from off speed stuff out of the zone.

That is a good combination.

The right hander who closed the game out in the Senators 4-01 win was former Trenton Thunder pitcher Christian Garcia. The tall right hander was one of the Yankees top starting pitching prospects a few years ago, but injuries (two Tommy John surgeries) and a lack of desire to work hard hampered his career. He is back now as a reliever, and now healthy, continues to possess a tremendous repertoire including an easy fastball at 93-94, moving it easily around the zone. I remember a few years ago that Garcia had a tendency to sometimes overthrow his fastball (maybe why he was always injured?), but it was no longer the case – at least in this game. He also threw a solid hook and plus, plus major league quality change up.

The change up has always been Garcia’s out pitch, and he uses it extensively, playing is very nicely off his solid fastball keeping his arm speed the same on both pitches. Both his strikeouts this game came on change ups, making the Thunder hitters look foolish. According to a couple Senators players, Garcia has been tremendous all season, with his changeup getting swings and misses on most occasions. It is a pitch which doesn’t necessarily need to stay down to be effective, as it is almost impossible to recognize early. I asked about his desire and work ethic (not his strong suit in his Yankee career), and both said they have not seen any slacking on his work habits.

Garcia showed good bite and downward action on his curveball, a plus pitch which he appears now to throw in basically offering something else to the hitter. Garcia was very popular when he played in Trenton, and many of the locals were glad to see him back healthy and performing well.

If he stays healthy Garcia could move quickly towards a bullpen spot with the major league club.


Most Intriguing Yankee Prospects for 2012

January 22, 2012

This is not a “Top 20″ or even a Top 10 list of New York Yankee prospects, as most of those lists include players who might never play in a major league game, let alone one for the Yankees. I even saw a lsit one time of T0p 50 Yankee prospects. Fifty? I believe that was three years ago, where one guy listed at #48 was a 27-year-old still in High A!  

However, the Yankees are notorious for not giving many of their prospects an opportunity.

One area that the Yankees do use their young guys is in the bullpen. But it takes them awhile to have trust in guys.

This is a piece on guys who could make their mark on the Yankee landscape in a big way this 2012 season.

One of the first things Brian Cashman changed when he gained control of the entire New York Yankees baseball organization in 2005 was to improve the draft and development program. While the first draft provided nothing, the second year in 2006 likely is the best draft of any team in recent memory.

No fewer than 10 players from that Yankees draft have reached the majors, and the one I thought would have one of the greatest impacts, Tim Norton, would also have reached the majors but has been beset by various injuries.

Norton was a college starter who the Yankees converted to short reliever, who began to dominate even up to his latest injury last season.

As mentioned earlier, the Yankees have been very good in developing relief pitchers during Cashman’s regime. They have produced Joba Chamberlain (insert argument here) and David Robertson, both college pitchers who progressed very quickly through the Yankee system.

With the known uncertainty with relief pitchers year to year, it is imperative for organizations to produce their own homegrown relief talent before the major league team spends $35 million on a reliever the team really does not need.

That is why two of my five most intriguing Yankee prospects for 2012 are current relievers in their system.

With Chamberlain and Phil Hughes (I am not fully convinced Hughes can be a full time starting pitcher) becoming free agents after 2013, it is imperative the Yankees develop a few more major league quality middle relievers to both replace Joba and Phil, who both will leave to become starters elsewhere, and to help keep a lower payroll to add flexibility when the team needs to add salary.

The Yankees also need to find if their recent surge in starting pitching prospects will turn beneficial for the franchise. The Tampa Bay Rays have continuously developed starting pitching which have kept their payroll low and their potential for winning the AL East high.

Here are my five most intriguing Yankees prospects for 2012:

1) Mark Montgomery – RHP

This guy possesses the same type of repertoire as David Robertson, with a big fastball and dynamic breaking ball, although M&Ms out pitch is a wicked slider. With only four appearances, Montgomery blew through the NY-Penn League last year and dominated an overmatched Sally League upon his quick promotion. In both leagues, Montgomery has double digit strikeout rates per 9 innings.

Similar to Robertson in 2007, who pitched at three levels his first full year in the system, look for Montgomery to start 2012 in High A Tampa, but don’t be surprised if he ends up in Triple-A  or higher.

The Yankees need more strikeout reliever types in the higher levels.

2) Manny Banuelos – LHP

Over the last three seasons, the Yankees system has begun to produce high level starting pitching talent, with the 20-year old Banuelos the cream of the crop. With a very easy mid-90s fastball and plus changeup, Banuelos reminds me of a young Johan Santana. However, Banuelos has a much better delivery than Santana, which should keep his arm healthy in the future.

Manny dominated the lower levels, but even though he still was only 20 and in his first full year at the higher levels, he struggled with his control a little during his brief time in Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. While seeing Banuelos in person many times, he tends to nibble, but his stuff is good enough to throw the ball over the plate and get away with minimal contact.

Now that he has a few innings at the higher levels, this season is important for Banuelos and the Yankees, who thus far have resisted the need the trade their prized left handed prospect for a mediocre veteran starting pitcher.  He needs to improve his control and confidence in his pitches, and show the Yankees their patience will be rewarded.

3) Mason Williams – OF

In only his first full (semi-full actually) season in pro ball, Williams also dominated the NY-Penn League with a .349 BA/.395 OBP/.468 SLG slash line, including 3 HRs. He used his speed to register 11 doubles and 6 triples, while swiping 28 stolen bases. With the dearth of Yankee outfield prospects in the high minors, I want the Yankees to challenge the 20-year old. I look for Williams to skip Charleston and move directly from Staten Island to High-A Tampa, close to his Florida home.

This move is not without precedent as another Yankees speedster, Brett Gardner, skipped Charleston on his run to the majors.

How Williams performs will go a long way as to whether the Yankees need to begin signing free agent outfielders to long term deals (and thus crippling their payroll) or going the year-by-year route until guys like Williams become major league ready by the 2014 season.

4) Branden Pinder – RHP

SI’s Tom Verducci wrote this piece about the Yankees’ David Robertson which indicated the diminutive reliever gets more “hop” on his fastball because of his long stride and extension to home plate. Well, Branden Pinder, closer for the Staten Island Yankees in 2011 after M&M was promoted, has that same long extension and “hop”.

Bringing the heat at 93-95 all year for the Baby Bombers, his fastball was actually registering to hitters at 96-98. Although the pitch was consistently up in the zone, he was able to get away with it at this level. His slider was sharp on occasion, but not consistent and he does throw slightly across his body.

These are very minor and correctable faults.

I don’t expect the Yankees to put both Pinder and Montgomery at High-A Tampa, so Pinder will likely start in Charleston and move up quickly as his strikeouts progress and how well Montgomery performs early on in Tampa. The Yankees normally do not work with kids much until they reach High-A Tampa, and this should provide the Yankees with a reason to move Pinder quickly through the system. Get him to Tampa and have the Tampa staff work on improving that slider and delivery.

As with Montgomery, the Yankees want to continue their development with high impact relief arms and Pinder fits that profile very well.

5) Gary Sanchez – C

I had a few others considered for this spot including J. R. Murphy and David Adams, two kids who are always hurt.

However, depending how he improves, Sanchez gives the Yankees flexibility and options. Even with the trade of Jesus Montero, the Yankees are still heavy in catching prospects, and Sanchez, with his power arm and bat is likely the brightest of the bunch.

While hitting .256/.335/.485 as an 18 year old in Low-A Charleston, Sanchez produced 17 home runs in only 343 PA, the same HR total as Jesus Montero at this level, in 220 LESS PAs! He is less refined as a hitter than Montero but has typical catcher bat qualities; that is, a solid .270-290 batting average projection with immense power.

I saw him play several times and he looked lackluster in the field and in the box, almost appearing “entitled” and “bored” at the same time. If Sanchez improves his mental approach to the game, which he should in Tampa with all the brass watching, this talented kid could push the Yankees to move Austin Romine (who I feel is overrated) out of a potential starting job.

Honorable Mentions

J.R. Murphy (great plate discipline), Chase Whitley (rapidly moving reliever), Slade Heathcott (health) and David Adams (health).


Scouting Review: Collin McHugh, Jordany Valdespin, Graham Stoneburner

August 12, 2011

Earlier this week I attended games between the locals Double A affiliates, with the Binghamton Mets visiting the Yankees’ Trenton Thunder. I saw the Thunder a few games early in the season, then one game a few weeks ago. I like to see teams in different parts of the season to ascertain whether kids have made adjustments to become better players. Also, kids at this level have been promoted and new players have been brought up to replace them.

Seeing teams before and after the all-star breaks hit on both of the above situations as most teams make the standard promotions after kids have played in their all-star games, like relatively new Thunder player Rob Lyerly.

In addition, I wanted to finally see the New York Mets top prospect, RHP Matt Harvey, who will be profiled in my next piece.

Taking the hill for the B-Mets was Collin McHugh, coming into the game with a 4-2, 3.75 record with two saves, including a three-inning save in his last appearance. His delivery is similar to Jake Peavy’s of the Chicago White Sox, but without the Peavy velocity. McHugh sat 88-90 and hit 91 on a couple occasions when it appeared he needed “a boost.” His fastball had good movement, often down and away to a RHH.

McHugh worked the fastball in and out, showing good command. When he missed, he usually missed off the plate, especially when working inside. He showed a nice moving cutter which broke in nicely on lefties, with slider action but thrown harder in the 84-86 range. One Thunder player commented that this was a new pitch for McHugh, having previously faced him in the NY-Penn, Sally and Florida State Leagues.

But the pitch that garnered the most swings and misses was a slow, downward breaking curve ball, thrown at 72-74 and used primarily with two strikes. He did not throw it that often, and you sometimes forgot he had the pitch in his arsenal until he broke it out for a key whiff.

McHugh does not have that superb “upside” that so many analysts and scouts love and thrive on, but McHugh does know how to pitch, has good command and does strike guys out, averaging 9.2 K/9 for his pro career. He has started and relieved in most seasons and could make a decent back-end of the rotation type pitcher, throwing the ball like Dillon Gee but with better strikeout rates.

The first night saw Graham Stoneburner on the mound for the Thunder. Two starts ago I reported reduced velocity for Stoner, something which I attributed to possible shoulder issues based upon his delivery. This game saw Stoneburner sit at 88-90 again with a few pumps at 92, similar to what I saw last time out. He was victimized by the tightest strike zone in the entire world by home plate umpire Scott Mahoney, culminating in a conversation between the two as the pitcher left the mound after the fifth inning.

Stoneburner left his slider up on occasion, with several hard hit balls the result, including a towering two-run home run by B-Mets RF Raul Reyes to straight away center. In addition to power, Reyes also showed good range playing right field, tracking balls deep into the corner near the fence and also coming in well on a right center field bloop.

Men were on base all night against Stoneburner but when he needed to make a pitch, he usually did with key strikeouts against Jordany Valdespin and Allan Dykstra on wicked sliders down and in. I found out that Stoneburner does not have any shoulder issues and through most of his career he has pitched in the 88-92 range, sometimes ratcheting up to 95 when he needed to.

While I have seen him hit 95 consistently in Staten Island, Charleston and Tampa, I must have been extremely lucky to see those games. 

I saw Jordany Valdespin play in the AFL last season**. You can read about my positional player 2010 AFL thoughts here.

**As an aside, in this AFL piece, I was pretty high on Jason Kipnis, who showed great bat speed and surprising power for a guy of his stature. Since being brought up by Cleveland a few weeks ago, he has hit .295/.358/.656/1.018 OPS with six HRs, but has also whiffed in nearly a third of his plate appearances.

Back to the Mets. To quote: “Valdespin showed great tools, but little in the way of how to play. He turned on a Jeremy Jeffress 99 MPH fastball like it wasn’t even an issue and showed good range and throwing arm on several plays. But he is inconsistent from play-to-play, showing a lack of concentration. He also swings at nearly everything and has poor hitting mechanics.”

With those poor mechanics, Valdespin usually leans and drifts, moving his upper body toward the pitcher, taking his legs out of the swing, which reduces the opportunity of any power.

What a difference a year makes. Valdespin showed better hitting mechanics, staying back and using his legs more. His upper body stayed on top of his legs and allowed his hands to get through the zone better. His quick bat, and now the use of his legs, has allowed him to hit 15 HRs so far and slug .483, the highest of his pro career.

Valdespin also showed better selectivity at the plate. For example, after getting ahead of Stoneburner 2-0 in the count, he took a slider on the inside corner for a called strike, and then got a fastball on the outer third which he fouled back. The Valdespin of the 2010 AFL would have gone after that 2-0 pitchers pitch, likely getting himself out. Facing the left-handed Josh Romanski in his fourth PA, Valdy calmly went with the pitch to line a single to left field.

His play-to-play concentration in the field appeared improved, with Valdy being in proper ready position before each pitch. He showed the good range and throwing arm I saw last fall, fielding balls in the 5.5 hole and up the middle. On the latter, on the run he fielded the ball near the bag, and with a strong throw across his body he nailed the runner at first base. Valdespin also moved his feet well on the routine ground ball, getting in front and wasn’t content to simply play the ball off to the side.

It appears that new Binghamton manager, former major league second baseman Wally Backman, a gamer if there ever was one, has had an effect on the 24-year-old Jordany. Also, don’t underestimate the development capabilities of the new Mets regime in this transformation.

I expected to see him again Wednesday night, but after Tuesday’s game, Valdespin was promoted to Triple A Buffalo, where he was 2-4, with a double.

With the uncertainty of Jose Reyes after this season, the Mets would benefit greatly if Valdespin continued his improvement.


Arizona Fall League: Pitcher Reports on Those Who Could Make an Impact in 2011

November 30, 2010

About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the position players I viewed as making an impact in the major leagues, many as soon as the 2011 season.

This report is about the many pitchers I saw in the Arizona Fall League, which I attended for the first time in early November. I highly recommend talking in a week or so in the future out there watching great baseball played by rising stars in perfect weather.

That might be the trifecta.

Most of the time out in the AFL, the pitchers are sent to increase their innings, work on certain pitches or see what they can do against better competition. Some organizations use the AFL to assess whether certain pitchers are worthy of Rule 5 protection by adding them to the 40-man roster.

As a rule, the AFL teams carry about 18-20 pitchers, but only seven are active on any one day. That is the one reason why the Phoenix Desert Dogs and manager Don Mattingly had to stop their game early in late October. Also, the starters rarely go longer than four innings, so relievers dominate the rosters.

There were very few impressive starting pitchers in the AFL this season. I only had an opportunity to see Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Mike Montgomery once (in the Rising Stars) game, getting him on a bad effort. I did not see Danny Duffy or Casey Kelly at all.

STARTING PITCHERS

1) Manuel Banuelos—You already know how I feel about ManBan. Good fastball touching 95, plus change-up, a pretty good curve, which he can throw to both sides of the plate and outstanding mound demeanor. He can be a top of the rotation guy and is still only 19 years old.

2) Mike Montgomery—As I mentioned earlier, I only saw Montgomery once and that was in the Rising Stars game. He started the game (opposite Banuelos) and was a little nervous, showing very little command of his fastball (which hit 96) or change up (81-82), bouncing a few but not with any swings and misses. He also hung a few curves, which weren’t tight. He has a smooth delivery and a good frame, standing a lanky 6’5″. Like Banuelos, he isn’t afraid to throw back-to-back change-ups or start hitters off with off-speed pitches.

He had some elbow issues this year but his dominating performance in the Pan Am games and his high velocity AFL appearances have lessened any injury worries. Montgomery obviously is much better than he showed in the Rising Stars game, but I would like to see better consistency in his off speed pitches.

I also feel his stride could be lengthened to develop even more velocity but would not affect his overall delivery.

3) Alex Cobb—The Rays are taking their usual one level at a time approach with Cobb (like they did with Jeremy Hellickson), and he was out in the AFL to boost his innings. I saw him versus the Phoenix Desert Dogs (PDD), and he did well but against an inferior Desert Dogs lineup, clearly the worst in the AFL. He was behind the count on many occasions but then overpowered the weak lineup.

Cobb was hitting low-to-mid 90s repeatedly with a good change-up, but all over the place with his fastball. His walk rates in his career are OK, but his command needs to be there in order for him to succeed. Will start in Triple A Durham but has no shot at the majors in 2011, based primarily on organizational philosophy.

4) Josh Collmenter—Accurately nicknamed “Iron Mike” because of his straight over-the-top delivery. I saw him pitch this game, also against the PDD, and he was dominant.

His fastball was never above 90, but generated lots of swings and misses, mostly on high fastballs. He has that deceiving delivery in which he hides the ball well, then before a hitter realizes, the ball is on top of him.

Collmenter literally tilts his upper body and throws straight over the top. Many of his swinging strikes were on high fastballs out of the zone, but appear to be strikes coming out of his delivery. He had a curve ball with good downward break, and he was able to throw it for consistent strikes. He was also not afraid to throw it behind in the count or as a first pitch offering.

Collmenter utilizes what I call “reverse sequencing” pitching. That is getting ahead with soft stuff and, when the hitter has two strikes and looking for junk, gets a moderate fastball blown by him. This method is better utilized by pitchers who do not throw hard.

While he will not be a top guy in any rotation, Collmenter will get his shot sometime this season in Arizona. After his AFL performance, he was placed upon the team’s 40-man roster.

5) Eric Hurley—After missing all of 2009 and 2010 with shoulder (labrum) surgery, this former major leaguer threw his first meaningful pitch in two seasons out in the AFL. He much sharper later in the AFL, showing good arm strength and said he had no fears about going all out.

If the Rangers do not re-sign Cliff Lee, Hurley has an opportunity to make the Rangers staff this season.

RELIEF PITCHERS

1) Brad Brach—I am very partial to this kid because he is a local Jersey Shore product. He has exceptional numbers during his career, including a great 2010 campaign in the heavy hitting High-A California League where he recorded 41 saves to go along with a stellar 2.47 ERA. He continued his dominance in the AFL with a 2.87 ERA and .873 WHIP.

He only allowed a base runner in five of his 11 AFL appearances, and although he did not strike out many, he showed pitches which moved and commanded well. During the Rising Stars game, he allowed a runner to reach third base on a two base error and a wild pitch.

Brach proceeded to get two strikeouts sandwiched around a weak ground ball to short and got out of the inning.

Brach throws a sinking 91-92 MPH fastball with good movement and located the ball well on both edges of the plate, often coming inside to lefties. His slider is a true out pitch and is rarely hit hard. He throws strikes with a career SO/BB ratio of 7.00. But he does throw across his body some which could lead to arm issues down the line.

Although Brach is more of a fly ball pitcher, it has yet to haunt him (career 7 HRs allowed, 6 in the Cal League) and should play well in spacious Petco Park.

I can see him (who will be 25 next season) starting in Double A but getting some time in San Diego late this season if he continues performing.

2) Jeremy Jeffress—Everybody was buzzing about Jeffress hitting 101 on the gun in the Rising Stars game, but he also threw 21 pitches that inning, only 10 for strikes. Although this sounds bad, his command in the AFL was much better than when I saw Jeffress back in July in the Florida State League.

There he showed the power FB (up to 97), but as I wrote back then in my notes, “can’t locate to save his life.” Reminded me of Daniel Cabrera without the height.

In the AFL however, Jeffress dropped in some hearty breaking balls for strikes, and if he can continue to throw the curve for strikes with upper 90s heat, he may have a shot to stay in the majors. Personally, I never want guys who can’t locate pitches, but with an arm like that and an effortless delivery, Jeffress will always be given tons of opportunities.

However, give me a guy with less “stuff” but with command and ability to pitch any day.

3) Chris Carpenter—Showed great velocity and command of his fastball (hit 99-100 MPH) in rising Stars game, but overall walked almost a batter per inning out here. He has a career walk rate of 4.0 per 9 IP.

While working as a starter most of his pro career, Carpenter was relieving in the AFL. His change-up was not good, but his slider was devastating on several occasions and weak on others. However, like Jeffress, if he can not locate his fastball and get ahead in counts, the plus pitches do not matter much.

The Cubs say this guy will stay as a starter but with a hard fastball and two other average pitches, his future role is definitely as a reliever who can be given time in Chicago this season.

4) Craig Heyer—I wrote about Heyer in the AFL here. For an unknown reason, Heyer was left unprotected by the Yankees for the Rule 5 draft, and I anticipate him being selected by another organization. With the way Kevin Towers likes to build solid bullpens, I can’t see Heyer passing by Arizona. Heyer’s ground ball tendencies will play well in cozy Bank One Ballpark.

5) Ramon Delgado—This is my sleeper guy. Delgado is a complete strike throwing machine. Saw him in my first game out in the AFL, and he was first pitch strike all the time. He can throw any of his three pitches (FB, sinker, slider) for strikes and will throw them in any count.

But mainly Delgado is first pitch fastball at the knees come right at you type of guy. The first time I saw him pitch, he got through the inning in six pitches. Delgado is a quick worker (funny how that happens when you throw strikes) who throws from a low 3/4 slot and gets good ball movement. The movement is tough to “square up” for hitters.

Very similar to Heyer in that he also was left unprotected, but Delgado did get some work this season at Double A, where he posted a 1.10 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 16 IP.

This is a guy who is quietly efficient. He throws strikes with great career walk and strikeout rates while keeping the ball in the park. Who couldn’t use a pitcher like that in their bullpen?

I would also grab this guy in the Rule 5 next week. Look for the Texas Rangers (his AFL pitching coach Brad Holman loved him) to grab him if he lasts that long.

There were other pitchers who I saw and liked including starter Daniel Merklinger (Milwaukee)—good curve and change, also saw him in July in the FSL and was placed on the Brewers 40 man roster this month; Josh Zeid (Philadelphia)—nice fastball, slider combo, throws strikes; Josh Fields (Seattle) – throws heat but lacks command; Josh Lueke (Seattle)—good fastball and biting slider. However, teams with teeth (and big rocks) would need to overcome his background.


Slade Heathcott: Looking at New York Yankees Starters in 2014 and Beyond

November 29, 2010

In the 2009 MLB draft, the New York Yankees selected Slade Heathcott in the first round, 29th overall.

It was not surprising to some as the Yankee were known to like the toolsy outfielder.

And in the recent Baseball America (BA) Top 10 New York Yankee prospects, Heathcott ranked No. 9. BA also projects future lineups and Slade was projected to be the starting center fielder in 2014.

Off the field issues, including difficulties with his home life while growing up led many teams to disregard the talented pitcher/outfielder in the 2009 draft. Heathcott led his team to the Texas 4A state baseball championship his senior year, collecting two hits in three official at bats, while closing the game out on the mound.

See that video here.

Heathcott was not without his share of injuries, too. He developed a knee injury while playing high school football, and had issues in his throwing shoulder from an injury also suffered in high school while diving for a ball in the outfield.

However, the Yankees were confident that Heathcott was mature enough to overcome the off the field questions, and talented enough to overcome the injury bug.

In addition to being a first round selection, Heathcott was also offered a full ride scholarship to play baseball at perennial powerhouse Louisiana State University. Incidentally, his roommate to be at LSU was former Louisiana standout prep pitcher Brody Colvin, a seventh round selection that same 2009 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Heathcott used the leverage of college baseball against the Yankees, announcing his decision on the final day before agreeing to a whopping $2.9 million dollar, well over slot deal with the team.

Right after the draft, Heathcott was assigned to Instructional League in Tampa where he finished out 2009 with 11 PA in the Gulf Coast League. He began his 2010 season in extended Spring Training, before being assigned to Low-A Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic (Sally) League in June.

The Low-A assignment was somewhat surprising as most people expected Heathcott to make his way to short season Staten Island and their smaller 60 game season. But the higher assignment is a testament to Slade’s talent level and he held his own against much older competition.

Heathcott finished the 2010 season by playing in 76 games, putting up a line of .258 BA/.359 OBP/.352 SLG/.712 OPS with two home runs and 30 RBI. He scored 48 runs, banged out 21 extra base hits and showed his patience at the plate by drawing 42 walks (12% of PA).

I saw him play several times, including a four game series played in New Jersey against the eventual Sally League champions, the Lakewood BlueClaws. Heathcott only played three games that series, missing the final tilt with a sore back.

Heathcott flashed the skills which prompted the Yankees to sign him, showing very good range in the outfield and tremendous speed on the bases. However, he took a circuitous route to the baseball on one long drive to left center in Lakewood, catching the ball based solely upon his speed.

Another drive in the same gap landed safely on the warning track because of another bad route, but in Heathcott’s defense, he was positioned well over in right center.

He is ultra-aggressive in his game, both in the field and on the bases.

In the three games I saw in Lakewood, Heathcott hit the ball well and showed his speed on the bases. He smacked a line drive double into the LF gap which the CF cut off and Heathcott made it to second easily before the throw. He also turned on a good inside fastball showing a nice, short stroke and good bat speed.

His running speed is outstanding, and besides the speed double, he scored from first on a two-out, two-bagger down the RF line. He got on base that time with a perfectly executed bunt single to third base, and neither play drew a throw.

He tried bunting other times (fouled off one; no attempt, bad pitch on another), and he told me it was a big part of his game. If he sees the 3rd baseman back, he will lay it down.

But all that speed has not translated in a high stolen base rate. He stole 15 bases but was caught 10 times plus was caught off base several times, including twice at second base in the Lakewood series.

Heathcott learned quickly that the throwing arms of catchers even on Low-A are much more developed than those of the prep catchers he went up against in high school. He can not take those huge secondary leads on every pitch. However, even after learning quickly, Heathcott continued to get picked off several more times during the last two months of the season.

In talking with Heathcott and RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, I expected to hear that they were working on Slade getting better jumps in the outfield and being a little less aggressive on the bases.

Colbrunn said, “No, we want the kids to be themselves.” At this level the Yankees “let the kids play and try not to do too much for them.” The Yankees want to see how these kids work things out on their own, then try to work more with them at the next level and in Instructs.

Some of the situational hitting and other offensive decisions, plus pitching changes and their work between games, are set and made by Colbrunn and his terrific Charleston staff.

But by and large, the on field stuff is planned and carried out by the players.

That meant 19-year-old rookie catcher J.R. Murphy, the Yankees second overall pick in the 2009 draft called his own games behind the plate, working with other first full season pitchers.

And Heathcott ran his own game on the bases and in the batter’s box.

The latter is significant because Heathcott, while showing a disciplined strike zone, the ability to work deep counts and take his walks, also struck out a stunning  101 times in 351 plate appearances. For a speed guy like Heathcott, that is just way too many walks back to the dugout without putting the ball in play.

During the season were they working on changing Heathcott’s approach at the plate, especially with two strikes. “No, again, we don’t do too much with them. We let the kids play, said Colbrunn.”

So, the Yankees do not attempt to teach Heathcott to adjust his two-strike approach to put the ball in play more. They let him have at it and learn and adjust on his own. Slade didn’t adjust as much as I would have liked during the season but the talent is there and his instructional league was more learning.

While Slade shows he can hit, the power is not there yet. It will come with his short stroke and during one BP session, he consistently drove the ball deep to right center, about 420ish or so. He joked that the wind must have been flying out to right, then said “right D-Mack” joking with Charleston RF (and guy who’s locker was next to his) DeAngelo Mack who hit an extra innings, game winning homer to right field that night. 

His throwing arm is top of the line, certainly plus, plus. On a single to center field he threw the ball home that easily had the runner but the catcher misplayed it. After the game, Heath was not happy about the throw, saying he should have gotten it to the catcher in a better position to handle. But a sizzling line drive throw home on one bounce looked pretty good to me.

But his throwing arm is now an issue. After fall instructs, Heathcott had surgery on October 8th to repair the labrum in his throwing shoulder, which was hurt during that outfield dive in high school. Slade played through the pain most of the season, and he expects to be back at 100% for spring training.

Heathcott has a nice career ahead of him, and whether he develops his power (I feel he can be a 15-20 HR guy), determines whether he hits lead off or third in the future Yankee lineup.  New York fans will love his style of play – all out, all the time.

Slade’s talentis there and his stature with the Yankees depends on whether his tools translate to improved on field performance. I can see him getting better as the talent level around him improves…in both dugouts.

In my discussion with him, I said he reminds me of a guy who played for the Texas Rangers – Rusty Greer. Heathcott smiled and said that Greer was his favorite player growing up in Texarkana, TX, and that is who he patterns his game after. 

Greer was a solid player for eight seasons in Texas but his career was derailed from injuries. If Heathcott duplicates Greer’s production, Yankee fans will be extremely happy but Slade is at least three seasons away from the Bronx. Interestingly, that 2014 season is right after Curtis Granderson’s last year of his contract.

Slade Heathcott is a good kid (Yes, sir. No, sir all the time) with lots of smiles and is a fun kid in the clubhouse, singing out loud to the music and joking with teammates. Despite his No. 1 draft pick status, he is not pretentious and seems well-grounded.

He is also a well-built young man with muscles on his muscles. While his playing style reminds me of Rusty Greer, his physique is all Mickey Mantle (another Slade favorite player) with strong arms, a very broad back and solid legs. 

The Yankees hope he remains more healthy than either of those two Heathcott idols.


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