Double A Prospect Report: Yankees Tyler Austin Looks Legit, but Slade Heathcott Needs Work

May 1, 2013

My home state of New Jersey is home to two affiliated minor league franchises, the Double A Eastern League Trenton Thunder, a New York Yankee affiliate, and the Low A South Atlantic League Lakewood Blue Claws, a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate. The Trenton home field is about 40 minutes away, while the Lakewood field is a mere 15 minutes away. I also get to see the short season Staten Island Yankees, the short season Yankee affiliate.

So I get a great opportunity to see three different levels of professional baseball, and two of the local major league teams for me. The Phillies actually play closer to my Jersey Shore home than either of the two New York teams.

I do like to see guys on more than one occasion before I assess their talent, especially here in the northeast, where early weather (usually rainy and cold) can cause slow starts by many players who are not used to such terrible weather*.

*One of the reasons Mike Trout wasn’t drafted higher than 27th in 2009 was because he played in New Jersey, which typically doesn’t get the same game opportunities of kids in Florida, Texas and California. Trout had scouts at his games, but during his senior year, the rainy weather was especially bad, and had canceled opportunities for many scouts to see Trout play. Can’t really draft what you don’t get to see.

However, I did see a couple games played by Trenton, when they hosted the Cleveland Indians Double-A affiliate Akron Aeros, and the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a San Francisco Giants affiliate, and will give my early reports. Since I am a Yankee fan, I generally follow the Yankee minor league teams closely and have seen games from every one of their affiliates.

Let me first get the analysis of the Akron team out of the way: I did not see anyone on this roster that will have an impact for the Cleveland Indians major league franchise. No one. Not anyone in their lineup, not even a single reliever. Chien-Hsiu Chen did not play in the game I saw, but has mostly DH’d this season. I saw a bunch of mid-range type players, with some who might become major leaguers, but few which warrant much conversation. One, a very large first baseman named Jesus Aguilar, has shown power in the past but he does not possess a good build and is brutal around first base.

Unless the Indians sign a bunch of quality free agents who perform, they could be bad for quite awhile. A handful of garbage they received in trades for CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee didn’t help their system.

The Richmond team had a couple of interesting players, former top picks. Joe Panik, a former 2011 first round pick, is similar to current Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford as he is a quality fielder who will never hit for any type of power. Panik was converted to second base this season and showed an ability to put the bat on the ball with two opposite field singles. He kept his hands tight on both hits, basically pushing the ball out to left field. These were hits more reminiscent of dead ball era game than the power game of today. While he does have strike zone discipline, he is similar to many of these “work the count” guys who take way too many hittable pitches over the middle of the plate. His second at bat saw Panik take two (very hittable) pitches down the middle, getting behind 0-2 before working the count even then pushing that first base hit.

The Giants 2011 second round pick, catcher Andrew Susac, showed good pitch recognition, never once flinching on off speed pitches out of the zone. He walked three times, and was especially impressive laying off several two strike sliders from one of the hard throwing Yankee relievers.  I wasn’t a big fan of his pre-swing hand movements, and his tendency to pull his front shoulder out too early which forces his arms to cast out from his body. But those are easily correctable faults a decent hitting coach should be able to fix in the cage.

Behind the plate Susac receives the ball well and has good footwork when throwing. Who knows what the Giants will do with Buster Posey a few years from now (maybe move him to 1B?) which could all depend on how well Susac develops.

The Yankees Double A squad is full of top prospects, with three of their top 11 at this level, all of which are on the offensive side. There are also boatloads of bullpen arms, many who can bring the heat.

First, the offense.

Tyler Austin

Austin is ranked by MLB.com as the third ranked Yankee prospect, behind Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams, both who are a level below. Austin is not very patient at the plate (he often is a first pitch swinger), but does draw his share of free passes as he has a pretty good idea of the strike zone. However, he sometimes expands the zone early in the count, especially on the first pitch. While I love first pitch hitters, especially with runners in scoring position, it is usually better to swing at pitches in your zone in 0-0 counts.

Austin has a wait and be quick approach, allowing the ball to get deep before unleashing quick hands directly to the ball. In one at bat, Austin belted a line drive single up the middle on a 1-2 change up, waiting for the outside corner pitch to get there before he attacked. He also pulls his hands in pretty well on inside heat, often getting the barrel on the ball.

He never appears off balance whether swinging the bat or taking pitches. In one at bat versus a submariner, Austin calmy fouled off two tough breaking pitches before working an eight pitch walk.

Austin didn’t have many opportunities in the field, but he appears to have strong instincts, often adjusting his pre-pitch positioning due to the count.

It is these factors which will propel Austin up the ladder to the majors. Although he has started slow this season with the average and power numbers, these should improve due to Austin’s quality approach.

Slade Heathcott

I had seen Heathcott a couple seasons ago in Charleston, and he was raw, showing great speed, good outfield range and strong throwing arm, but lacked refinement. I heard quite a few great things from his Arizona Fall League appearance, and was looking to see Heathcott improve on his quality 2012 season.

Man, was I severely disappointed.

Heathcott was often off balance when swinging (vs. a LH starter), mainly all upper body, and using nothing from his lower half. This caused him to move over his front side several times and end up swinging one handed. His swing was very reminiscent of current Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, another hitter who rarely uses his lower half.

Heathcott showed his tremendous speed in forcing the shortstop into an error on a routine ground ball, and putting down a great bunt to the first baseman for a single. Bunting is an important part of Slade’s game, even from his time in Charleston.

With Heathcott’s injury history it is very apparent the Yankees want him healthy all season. On one play a shallow fly ball was hit to center and Slade rushed in, then slowed to let the ball fall just in front of him. A clean hit for sure, but I was thinking the old 110% effort Slade would have dove for that ball. It is very clear to me the Yankees have spoken to Heathcott about not going all out on outfield plays.

I was disappointed that Heathcott has such a terrible swing at this point of his 2013 season, a season which has such high promise. It is time for the Thunder hitting coach to get some extra cage time with Heathcott to change his overall mechanics to use his lower half (that is where power is derived) and stay back.

Ramon Flores

Flores is a tweener guy who shows very good hitting skills, great strike zone discipline, but doesn’t project for me as having much future power.

He takes an inordinate amount of pitches, early and late in the count, ahead and behind, many just off the plate even with two strikes. Flores just doesn’t swing at bad pitches or good pitchers pitches, which is very important. He has a great line drive stroke and quick bat, but no loft where home runs will come. He is adequate in the outfield, and has shown the ability to play each of the outfield positions. This versatility, plate discipline lends Flores as a fourth outfielder type, but if he gets to the major leagues, working with Kevin Long could help Flores in the power department and boost his potential.

Kyle Roller

Speaking of power, Kyle Roller has immense power. The over sized, but compact left handed hitter is mostly pull oriented, often pulling off the ball and letting his hands get away from his body. Roller has a slight drop to his hands and sometimes gets over his front side, bringing his hands along for that ride. However, on one swing Roller kept his hands in and belted a very high and long home run, which had tremendous back spin – a true major league blast. If Roller can get his swing a little more compact, and stay back more consistently, he could do major damage with a short right field porch.

He was smoother than I expected around the first base bag, shifting his feet well and showing the ability to throw to second base, but he lacks range and wouldn’t be a long term, full time defensive option.

Rob Segedin

A very solid hitter who consistently puts the bat on the ball and can work the ball from line to line. But Segedin could be had inside and I don’t project much home run power with his type of swing. He also rotates too much, pulling up and out on the ball, and can roll the ball over too much.

He is also very shaky on defense, both with a consistent glove and ability to make a quality throw.

Neil Medchill

There has been lots of talk about the possibility Medchill has resurrected his prospect status with a hot start including four home runs.

Stop the talk, please. Medchill still has a long swing which causes him to come around the ball far too often. During the Richmond game I saw, I was sitting behind a Flying Squirrel starting pitcher keeping a chart. On one pitch Medchill swung and fouled off a pitch. I said to the pitcher, “You can get this guy inside all day long with that swing.” He replied, “You see that too?” NEXT PITCH on inside corner splintered Medchill’s bat for a weak ground ball to second base.

Medchill can connect on mistakes over the plate once in a while, but at higher levels when pitchers can locate much better, his power will be non-existent, but the strikeouts will still be there.

Daniel Burawa

Burawa was flat out filthy the first time I saw him. Fastball was between 94-96 and he hit 97 six times. Everything was down in the zone, and the fastball and slider was getting quite a few swings and misses. He was also able to back door his slider for called strikes.

His arm gets up high pretty early and he throws slightly across his body, with his foot plant off by a couple inches in his direct line to the plate. I would try and clean up his mechanics a bit.

However, the second time I saw him, Burawa was all over the place. The velocity once again was there, but the command was not. His slider was also flat, and could use some tightening and consistency. Major league hitters will slap around that pitch when flat. It seemed Burawa could “get comfortable” with the fastball and lose the zone with a lack of concentration.

Tommy Kahnle

Another power arm in Trenton, Kahnle has a smooth delivery with a solid fastball sitting 94-96. He located very well, even his slider, peppering the low outside corner to RHH. Control has always been an issue, but he had command and control in this one inning. However, there have been a couple games this season where he makes Daniel Cabrera look like Greg Maddux.

When he locates his pitches, Kahnle is virtually unhittable as his fastball and slider grade even higher.

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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.