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