Living in Northern New Jersey, I’m fortunate to have seven minor league ballparks within a two-hour drive from my house. However, the closest park for me and the one I frequent the most is Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton New Jersey, home of the Yankees Double-A affiliate – the Trenton Thunder. Not only are the crab fries ridiculously good, the number and quality of prospects that play in the Eastern League provide a great petri dish for scouting.
While I primarily plan my trips to Trenton to see top visiting prospects such as Xander Boegarts, Gregory Polanco, Alan Hanson, Rafael Montero, and Maikel Franco, I realized it was time to write about some of the Yankees prospect that I’ve seen this year. As I analyze my notes of multiple games and pick out the four players that most intrigue me, it’s hard not to be disappointed in the development of several key prospects for the Yankees. While there is depth, there hasn’t been one player that I’ve seen play in Trenton that I can label a sure-fire role six or above player at the highest level. I define a role six player as a first-division starter with all-star potential. At the beginning of the season, my expectations were higher as I ranked four Yankees prospects in my top 100.
Gary Sanchez – Catcher, arrived in Trenton on August 4th, 2013
Game Scouted – Harrisburg Senators vs. Trenton Thunder (August 13th)
Signed for an impressive $3 million dollar signing bonus in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic, Gary Sanchez is an offensive-first catcher with excellent bat speed with future plus power potential. In the game I sat-on, Sanchez showed easy plus pull power in batting practice, hitting several bombs to left and left-center. Facing Robbie Ray during game action, who candidly didn’t have his best stuff, Sanchez had a great at-bat in the first inning, getting a little out-front on multiple 93 MPH four-seamers for several line drive foul balls. After fouling off numerous pitches, he tapped out to the pitcher. He also had a solid double on a 92 MPH fastball out over the heart of the plate.
In all his at-bats, Sanchez was very aggressive at the plate and that was best illustrated on a swinging strikeout in the fifth when he was way out in front on 81 MPH change-up. However, in total, the bat is solid and will definitely play at the highest level. There will be swing and miss in his bat but he also has 20-25 future home run power potential and particularly early-on, could get a lift in his batting average through a high BABIP given how hard he makes contact.
The big question is will Gary Sanchez stay behind the plate? Granted it was only one game, but there is a lot of work to be done. First, he’s very athletic and demonstrated good lateral movement behind the plate with a plus arm. However, his receiving skills need a lot of work. He stabbed at many pitches and didn’t create much of a target for his pitchers. While the art of framing pitches takes years of practice, unless Sanchez learns to position himself better, he’ll never have that chance.
All and all, Sanchez is a very good prospect but my pre-season ranking of 26 and my mid-season ranking of 18 seem very aggressive at this point. However, with a plethora of minor league promotions this year combined with a weak 2013 first year player draft, his 2014 ranking will continue to be high.
Slade Heathcott – OF, arrived in Trenton in April 2013
Game Scouted: Several: from April through July
Zachary Slade Heathcott can play baseball!
He possess both a ton of tools but also has a feel for the game while playing with great enthusiasm – dare I say…grit. The problem continues to be will he be able to stay healthy in order to reach his full potential. While it looked like 2013 would be the year that he played a full-season, he hit the DL in mid-August with tendonitis in his right knee; four days before I made my last visit of the year to see the Thunder.
Let’s talk about his tools. The speed is plus-plus as I consistently got times down to first base around 4.0 seconds. However, in the outfield, the speed plays even better based on his routes and quick first step. He’s at least a plus defender with future gold-glove potential. The arm is also very strong as I saw him limit guys to singles on several occasions that most runners would have taken second. While Heathcott has below-average power, he does have enough physical strength to hit 5-10 home runs at the highest level.
Sounds like a player…just stay healthy…right? Well, unfortunately, the hit tool is not great. First, the bat-speed is not impressive, and given how naturally athletic he is; that’s a little surprising. Secondly, while the swing is fairly compact, it’s not very fluid at all; which I’m guessing is causing him to loose bat speed. It’s not multi-part, but just a little loopy. He does have good pitch recognition but based on the swing I’ve seen, there is going to swing and miss in his game.
Finally, and I hate to put comps on a player, but it’s hard not to think about Brett Gardner when you are watching Heathcott. The speed, athleticism, and outfield range are very similar. Plus as Gardner was coming through the Yankees system, people questioned how much he could hit. He’s done ok and I believe Heathcott will be ok as well. Not a star but a chance to be a very good player.
Tyler Austin – OF, arrived in Trenton in April 2013
Games scouted – Several: from April through July
My feelings for Tyler Austin are really mixed. I saw a couple of games this year that made me think that Austin was a sure-fire first-division starter and then I saw games that made me doubt his ability to even make it out of Double-A.
First, I like the swing a lot. It’s short and compact with a nice quiet setup. When it’s all working, there is both plus power potential and plus contact as the swing just works. The inconsistencies I’ve seen involve his bat speed. While I wouldn’t call it plus bat-speed, it’s still above average and with the hitting mechanics, he profiles as a solid role five player with the capacity to hit for 20+ home runs at the highest level. On other occasions, I’ve seen poor bat speed – this was most evident a few days before he hit the DL with a wrist injury. I can’t help but think that maybe his wrist was bothering him on and off during the season and if true, I feel better about his future potential.
Another thing I liked about Austin was the improvements he made with pitch recognition throughout the year. In trips in April and early May, he was overmatched, particularly with off-speed pitches. However, as the season progressed, he laid off pitches that were outside the zone or those he couldn’t handle.
I’m still a huge fan of Tyler Austin and believe once his wrist is fully healed, a promotion to New York sometime in 2014 is not out of the question. While the tools are not as loud as Heathcott, the hit tool should play at the highest level.
Ramon Flores – OF, arrived in Trenton in April 2013
Games scouted – Several: from April through August
Whenever I would catch a Thunder game, it was rare that both Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin were playing at the same time. I attributed this to just random bad luck. However, one guy that was always playing was Ramon Flores, and the more I saw him play, the more I liked him. I was constantly writing, went down to get that ball – single up the middle or nice at-bat ending in a double down the line. On July 25th, I wrote in chicken scratch next to his name – Flores is better than I thought.
Signed in 2008 out of Venezuela, Flores has been floating under-the-radar; probably because his tools aren’t very loud. However, he makes solid contact, has an approach, and can get on-base. He’s short to the ball with gap-to-gap power but with enough bat speed and raw strength to have at least average power at the highest level. The speed is also just average and as he fills out, the 24 bases he stole last year in High-A will be a distant memory.
He’s not a great defender and profiles best defensively as a left-fielder and that’s the problem – I’m not sure he has enough power to become a regular contributor in left; particularly for the Yankees. However, he’s only 21-years-old and already in Double-A and will probably see Triple-A next year. As a New York Yankee, he’s probably a fourth outfielder but he’s the kind of guy that will either get traded or be picked up in a Rule-5 draft and could thrive outside of New York. If that happens, remember, you heard it here first!