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.


New York Yankees Pitching Prospect Graham Stoneburner Dominates in Latest Start

May 6, 2010

UPDATE: On May 11, just five days after this piece was written, Graham Stoneburner was promoted to High A Tampa.

He is the pitching prospect with the Internet hype. He is also very high on the New York Yankee organizational support list, and Charleston RiverDogs pitcher Graham Stoneburner * did not disappoint in Wednesday’s late morning start against the Lakewood BlueClaws.

*Late in the interview process, he was asked about his unique surname. Graham replied, “My ancestors used to heat up rocks and put them under peoples beds.” Interesting. It had to be asked and reported as I knew people were dying to know the origins of what is one of the best names ever for a pitcher. By the way, Graham’s older brother, Davis Stoneburner , is a shortstop in the Texas Rangers organization.

The Yankees 2009 14th-round pick out of Clemson dominated from the beginning, striking out 11 Lakewood hitters, while allowing two hits, no runs and walking two over seven strong innings. His fastball was consistently between 91-93, hitting as high as 95 on three different guns. He now has 43 strikeouts in 38 innings this season.

I have attended each of the first three games here in Lakewood to see the Yankee Class Low A affiliate Charleston RiverDogs compete. I will write an overall article regarding my thoughts on the team and its prospects after tomorrow’s finale, but Stoneburner’s game today warranted an extra piece.

Stoneburner struck out seven straight hitters at one point, his best work coming in the second inning which began that string of Ks. It was the first of two Lakewood scoring chances against Stoneburner. A hard hit ball by 2008 Philadelphia Phillies first round pick Anthony Hewitt got past the RiverDog third baseman, Jimmy Paredes, and scooted into left field.

The speedy Hewitt sprinted into second ahead of LF DeAngelo Mack’s throw, but the ball got away and Hewitt raced to third. Man on third and no outs in the 0-0 game, but Stoneburner quickly retired the side in order on three whiffs.

When asked about that situation Stoneburner said, “The first guy I was trying to strike out, and the second hitter I was looking for a strikeout or ground ball. With the third hitter I was trying to make good pitches to let him get himself out, but I ended up with another strikeout.”

Stoneburner struck out the side again in the third, mostly with heaters and a biting slider. “My two big out pitches today were the fastball and slider,” he said. Usually I try to pound the zone with both and use the change up to set up both the fastball and slider.”

The supposed work in progress changeup appeared very good, getting several swings and misses. It came in anywhere from 79-81 and had good downward action.

He was getting lots of called strikes and when asked if the umpire was a little generous, Stoneburner said, “I consistently hit some spots and, maybe, one or two he gave me. But other than that, he didn’t really give me too much.”

However, that particular umpire (Shaun Lampe) was also behind the plate Monday night, and in both games was consistent in giving pitchers the outside corners. Today’s battery of Stoneburner and catcher Kyle Higashioka knew that and worked it to their advantage.

That is good baseball and Stoneburner gave much credit to his battery mate. “My catcher and I were on the same page all day. He called a great game and whatever he called I just tried to put it where he called it, and I was able to execute some pitches today.”

But Stoneburner was in a little trouble in the fifth inning when after a leadoff walk, the next hitter lined a single to center field. The runner on first tried to take the extra base, but center fielder Ray Kruml came up firing and gunned the runner out at third.  

Then after a stolen base (Lakewood has had eight steals in the three games) and his second walk issued, Stoneburner got a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Kruml’s throw was a huge play for Stoneburner and the RiverDogs.

While that inning-ending double play was nicely turned by second baseman Emerson Landoni, it was not the defensive highlight play of the day. That occurred in the bottom of the eighth inning with Lakewood runners on first and third with no outs against Charleston reliever Ronny Marte. At this point with the RiverDogs up 2-0, the game is still not decided.

The next hitter bounces back to Marte who wheels and throws to second for the force. The relay to first baseman Luke Murton was in plenty of time to get the batter for the double play.

But the runner on third did not begin to run home until the ball was already in the short stops glove for the first out, and Murton threw home to Higashioka to get the runner at home for the third out.

It was the first time for many jubilant RiverDogs in experiencing a triple play. It was all the talk in the clubhouse after the game.

And it was the second triple play for the organization this year, the first being turned by the parent club in Oakland.

But despite the defensive heroics, this day belonged to Stoneburner.

He was in control all day, and was still gassing the ball to the plate late in the game. During the bottom of the seventh inning, I was down behind home plate amongst scouts and the radar guns.

With one out and two strikes on the next hitter, Stoneburner fired an up and in fastball past the swinging No. 5 hitter, Darrin Ruf. All the radars showed 95 MPH on which was Stoneburners 95th pitch.

RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, a 13-year Major League veteran, was impressed with his young starter. “He’s got a chance to move through the ranks pretty quickly,” Colbrunn said.

When Stoneburner was asked if he thought he could be promoted soon he said, “No, I don’t have any control over that, except for performing. So I just keep my mind focused on what I have to do and let everything else take care of itself.”

When I mentioned that the Yankees have made it a yearly habit of promoting their top Low A pitcher each of the past two seasons (Zach McAllister in 2008 and David Phelps in 2009), he added, “I try to just keep it as simple as can be and pitch well. If I get called up, great. If I don’t, then I’m gonna stay here and hopefully continue to do well and every time out there, and just try to compete.”

Charleston scored its first run in the sixth inning when Zoilo Almonte doubled and came around on a single by Paredes. Then in the seventh, Charleston tacked on an insurance run when Higashioka walked on a close 3-2 pitch, advanced to second on a ground out, and went to third on a bullet, line drive single to left field by Landoni, the second baseman.

Landoni was then picked off first, but stayed in the run down long enough to see Higashioka score from third. Interestingly, Landoni was almost picked off on the prior pitch, too.

Those two runs helped Stoneburner garner his first ever professional victory. When asked if he was getting frustrated after pitching well, but not getting any marks in the win column he said, “I just try and go out there and keep the runs to a minimum and do my best to put my team in a position to win. I don’t worry about wins and losses too much because I can’t control it. It’s good to get a win, but it’s really not the priority.”

This is the second dominant performance this season for Stoneburner, who set down 20 men in a row against Rome on April 24, but received a no-decision.

Stoneburner is completely wrong about one thing. He does have control over whether he gets promoted or not. If he keeps pitching like he did today, the Yankees organization will have no choice but to start the promotion train.

And the young, talented Mr. Stoneburner will have a first class ticket to Tampa.

UPDATE: On May 11, just five days after this piece was written, Graham Stoneburner was promoted to High A Tampa.