State of the organization: Center field • 10.14.14
Up next in our position-by-position look at the Yankees organization is a position that has a long-term solution already in place at the major-league level. It’s also a position with quite a bit of depth — and a good amount of both disappointment and production — within the minor league system. The Yankees have a lot of young center fielders who might or might not work out, but right now there’s not really a place to put them even if they do emerge as immediate big league options.
Signed through 2020
The Yankees lineup didn’t have much in 2013, but one thing it did have was a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. And so, of course, when the Yankees got into the offseason and needed to find a high-end position player, they gave seven years and more than $150 million to a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. For the most part, Ellsbury lived up to expectation in his first season with the Yankees. He had a 113 OPS+ in 2013, then a 111 in 2014. He had 246 total bases in 2013, 241 in 2014. Home runs were up, stolen bases were slightly down, but ultimately this was a reasonable and productive year for Ellsbury. Whether the contract will still be reasonable and productive at the end of the decade remains to be seen, but for the time being, the Yankees seem to have gotten the player they expected. And having Ellsbury in center field has allowed the Yankees to move Brett Gardner back into left field, giving them a ton of outfield range and a double-dose of speed near the top of the order.
On the verge
I’m using Richardson’s name here mostly to make a point about the uncertainty of all the organization’s upper-level center fielders. The Yankees have a lot of center fielders who could push themselves onto the big league roster early next season — Can Slade Heathcott get healthy? Mason Williams has the defense, what about the bat? Will Jake Cave keep moving up? Is Taylor Dugas for real? Are Adonis Garcia and Ramon Flores good enough in center? — but this September, when the Yankees wanted a speedy center field type to bring up in September, they called on the veteran Richardson. Even with a lot of center field talent in Double-A and Triple-A, Richardson was the choice. Ideally, one of the true center field prospects will push for that sort of call-up next year. Williams is Rule 5 eligible this offseason. Heathcott and Flores are already on the 40-man. Cave and Dugas had great 2014 seasons. Both Garcia and Flores are intriguing hitters who primarily play in the corners but have center field experience. With both Ellsbury and Gardner on the big league roster, the Yankees have ready-made depth in center field, so the development of a center fielder isn’t overwhelmingly important. But the Yankees have a lot of upper-level talent at the position, and they’ll surely need some of that talent to play some sort of role going forward.
Two things are at play here. The first is all about Cave himself. The 21-year-old missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, but he made a strong showing with Low-A Charleston in 2013, and he did so well with High-A Tampa this season that he forced a mid-July promotion to Double-A Trenton. When he got there, Cave’s power numbers actually spiked. He finished the year with a .294/.351/.414 slash line between the two levels. He can run, but he hasn’t stolen a ton of bases. He has some power, but it mostly plays out in a lot of doubles. He’s noted for a strong arm in the outfield. Good as Cave has been these past two years, though, some of his move to the top of the organizational pecking order at center field is because of the decline of both Williams and Heathcott. Williams hit just .223/.290/.304, which was another a step backwards after a disappointing 2013. His speed, defense and upside might be enough for a 40-man spot this winter, but Williams’ prospect stock is falling fast. Heathcott, on the other hand, remains one of the highest-potential players in the organization, but he had yet another surgery this season. He simply missed too much time and remains too injury prone to still consider him the top center field prospect in the system.
Deeper in the system
The Yankees top five draft picks this year were all pitchers. The first position player they selected was Payton, a University of Texas center fielder who made a strong first impression by hitting .320/.418/.497 between Low-A and High-A. Just like almost all of the other center fielders in the system, Payton is a left-handed hitter, and most scouting reports suggest a fourth-outfielder upside. He seems to be one of those guys who does a lot of things pretty well but no one thing extremely well (could say that about a lot of the Yankees other center field prospects as well). Have to assume Payton will head back to Tampa next season, looking to basically follow Cave’s footsteps with a mid-season bump to Double-A. Also coming up from the lower levels, Dustin Fowler hit for some power in Charleston this year, but Leonardo Molina is the name to watch. He’s just 17 years old and put up bad numbers in rookie ball, but the Yankees see considerable potential. Needs time to develop.
Getting things right
It’s not unusual or surprising to see a lot of left-handed center fielders in the organization. Most high school teams tend to stick their best players at shortstop, but if that best player is left-handed, center field seems to be the best alternative. And it seems the Yankees organization is seeing the trickle-down impact. Ellsbury, Gardner, Cave, Dugas, Flores, Heathcott, Williams and Payton are all left-handed hitters. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a redundant thing. With Ellsbury and Gardner locked into multi-year contracts, the Yankees most immediate opening for a young center fielder is in fourth outfielder role, and it would be convenient to have that fourth outfielder bat right-handed (if only to balance the two guys already in place). At some point the Yankees might have to trade away some of this center field depth to find a player who’s not so repetitive within their own system. Problem is, Heathcott and Williams have lost considerable trade value, and guys like Flores and Dugas (and probably even Cave) aren’t likely to headline a particularly significant deal.
Associated Press photo
Last night on MLB Network, Jonathan Mayo and the crew at MLB.com counted down their Top 100 prospects in baseball. Three Yankees made the list: Gary Sanchez (36), Mason Williams (41) and Tyler Austin (75). The only player who I thought might make it but didn’t is Slade Heathcott, who will almost certainly shoot onto the list — probably pretty high on the list — if he has a full, healthy and productive season in Double-A.
What does a Top 100 list mean exactly? Not much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a decent snapshot of the way players are viewed. There’s more or less no difference between No. 36 and No. 41. It’s mostly just interesting to see which players rank at the very top and which ones make the list at all.
State of the organization: Center field • 01.16.13
Three years ago, the Yankees traded their center fielder of the future (who was basically ready for the big leagues) to acquire a center fielder of the present (who had a team-friendly contract through four more seasons). For the Yankees, the trade looked a lot better at this time last year, before Granderson took a step back and Jackson took a step forward. Now that Curtis Granderson is entering the final year of his contract, attention has shifted to the next wave of center fielders. It’s generally assumed that Granderson won’t be back next year — might not even be in center field this year — there are two players who can legitimately claim to be the Yankees center fielder of the future.
Second year of arbitration
I can’t tell you who exactly is going to play center field next season, but because the Yankees have acknowledged considering the idea of Gardner in center, I’m heading into spring training expecting that to happen. It’s not based on concrete facts — I honestly believe the Yankees are open to either option – but we’ve seen Granderson run a little less in recent years, my gut says that Gardner would be a better defensively, and it might make sense to go ahead and use Gardner in center now and go shopping for a left fielder next winter. Either way, the Yankees have options (even Ichiro Suzuki has proven he can still handle center if necessary). Gardner is an elite defensive player with speed. Granderson is, at the very least, one of the top power hitters in the game. The position is not a short-term concern for the Yankees.
On the verge
Speed, power and defense make Melky Mesa a tantalizing young player. Strikeouts make him a player who might never get more than the two Major League at-bats he had last season. In the minors last year, Mesa struck out 118 times, and that was actually his lowest single-season total since he reached full-season leagues. His Triple-A slash line of .230/.271/.524 pretty much tells the story of a guy who can hit the ball out (if he actually makes contact). Mesa can also run, but he is perhaps best known for failing to touch a base during his late-season call-up last year. He might be an all-or-nothing wild card, but Mesa does give the Yankees immediate depth in center. Zoilo Almonte has also played some center field in his career, and speedy Abe Almonte could be another option if he can build on a solid 2012 season in Trenton (and if he can get playing time on a crowded Scranton/Wilkes-Barre roster). Another name to watch here is Adonis Garcia. The Cuban outfielder played well in winter ball and could become an option if he hits.
Deeper in the system
I considered listing Slade Heathcott as an “on the verge” option, but I’m just not sure I buy Damon Oppenheimer’s optimism that Heathcott could be in the big leagues this year. Heathcott still hasn’t played above High-A Tampa, and although he was terrific in the Arizona Fall League, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees suddenly pushing Heathcott too hard (not when they’ve previously worked so hard just to keep him healthy). But even if he doesn’t arrive this year, Heathcott is on his way. So is Mason Williams. They are two of the Yankees truly elite prospects, and it seems likely that Heathcott will open this season in Double-A with Williams right behind him in High-A. Both have significant upside, but they still need some development time and some patience. Ravel Santana was a part of this conversation a year ago, but he struggled so badly in Staten Island last season — .216/.304/.289 — that his stock has taken a considerable hit.
On the move
Overshadowed on a stacked Charleston roster, 2010 10th-round pick Ben Gamel had a so-so first half last season, but after Williams was promoted, Gamel shifted from left field to center field and hit .320/.347/.419 in the second half. He doesn’t stand out in this system — and he might not see a ton of center field time considering the other options — but there’s something to like about him. It’s also worth noting that Ronnier Mustelier has played quite a bit of center field, including some time as a center field regular this winter. The Yankees have never shown signs of making that a go-to position for him, but he does have experience there. Like with shortstop, it’s rare to see a player shift from any other position into center field. It happens occasionally — Abe Almonte moved from second to center when he was extremely young — but for the most part, guys play their way out of center field, not into center field.
What to watch
There’s an fairly immediate decision to make. Are we going to see Gardner getting regular center field reps this spring? Are we going to see Granderson getting most of his time in left? The decision isn’t going to revolutionize the big league roster, but it’s going to be interesting to watch. For those who closely follow the minor leagues, it seems that every full-season team will have a center fielder worth watching. Can Mesa cut down on the strikeouts? Can Heathcott stay healthy? Can Williams carry his success to High-A? Can Santana get back on the prospect map (and will the Yankees make him repeat short-season ball)?
Associated Press photo; headshots of Gardner, Mesa, Heathcott, Williams and Gamel
Monday notes from the minor league complex • 03.26.12
I doubt the Yankees would ever frame it this way, but essentially they have to decide whether Phil Hughes will be more like the 2010 version of himself or the 2011 version. So far, he’s very clearly looked more like 2010, and he’s been able to maintain that level of performance throughout the spring.
“The beginning of that year, you come in and that real-season adrenalin starts to kick in,” Hughes said. “Everything is a little bit better, a little bit crisper. I don’t think I’m pitching that well at this point, but that’s not to say that it can’t be there when April rolls around and we get things going. I feel like I’m close.”
Hughes’ fastball velocity has been fairly consistent this spring, and I talked to one scout today who said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it topping out a little higher a month or two into the season. He’s started throwing a harder, tigher curveball, and his changeup seems to be even better than it was in 2010. He’s walked two hitters all spring.
“I think he’s very close (to 2010) right now,” Francisco Cervelli said. “He’s got to keep working, because the season is long. He has to keep getting stronger.”
He looks strong right now, and if he keeps pitching at his 2010 level, I’ll be surprised if Hughes isn’t in the rotation come Opening Day.
• Hughes was pitching for the High-A team. The Low-A group was also in Tampa today. Triple-A and Double-A were on the road in Clearwater. The Low-A Charleston lineup is really, really impressive. Check it out at the bottom of this post.
• Andy Pettitte will throw his second batting practice tomorrow, but Larry Rothschild said he’s not sure what comes after that. He’s also not sure whether Pettitte will get in a game this spring, but he doesn’t seem to be ruling out the possibility.
• Joe Girardi was home visiting his ill father this morning but Rothschild, Rob Thomson, Billy Eppler and Brian Cashman were among the Yankees decision makers watching Hughes pitch.
• Center field prospect Mason Williams and catching prospect Gary Sanchez have been moved from the Tampa group to the Charleston group (which was expected). J.R. Murphy has been moved from Trenton to Tampa. Those assignments are more in keeping with where they’ll almost certainly open the regular season.
• Speaking of Sanchez, he and Tyler Austin hit back-to-back homers in the Low-A game today.
• I didn’t see it, but apparently Ravel Santana made his spring debut today. He’s back from a ankle injury.
• George King reported yesterday that the Phillies might be interested in Ramiro Pena to help them fill their sudden hole in the infield. Today I heard it’s true that the Phillies might have some interest, but only at a cheap price. They’re not willing to give up much. Today the Phillies signed Chin-lung Hu to give them some utility depth.
• Very good to see P.J. Pilittere this afternoon. The former Yankees minor league catcher is now a coach in the Yankees system. Very good guy. Could be a natural manager some day.
• Here are today’s lineups for Tampa and Charleston. This might be the actual Opening Day lineup for Charleston, and it’s loaded with legitimate prospects. Pretty impressive, actually.
Eduardo Sosa CF
Kelvin Castro 2B
Ramon Flores LF
Rob Segedin RF
Kyle Roller 1B
J.R. Murphy DH (went to catcher in the seventh)
Zach Wilson 3B (made a nice play in the field today)
Carmen Angelini SS
Francisco Cervelli C
Mason Williams CF
Ben Gamel LF
Dante Bichette 3B
Gary Sanchez C
Tyler Austin RF
Cito Culver SS
Angelo Gumbs 2B
Reymond Nunez 1B
Anderson Feliz DH
• Finally, I’ll be hosting a chat here on the blog at noon on Wednesday. Stop by if you can. I’m sure we’ll jump into the rotation decision and some of the guys who have made noise this spring.
Associated Press photos
Williams: “I just want to come back here” • 03.19.12
When Mason Williams went to first base to pinch run for Mark Teixeira last night, Joe Girardi gave the 20-year-old center fielder the green light. Williams was in a big league spring training game for the first time, and he wasted little time. He took off for second base and was thrown out by Matt Wieters.
“(Girardi) said sometimes first-timers are scared out there or whatever,” Williams said. “But I felt comfortable. I thought I had a good enough jump, but I guess not.”
Williams was candid after the game, and he seemed relatively comfortable surrounded by a crowd of roughly a dozen reporters for the first time. It’s part of what the Yankees like about him, a humble confidence that makes Williams more than a talented young athlete.
“I definitely talked to a lot of players on the team, picked their head,” Williams said. “When I was on the bench, just watching the game, see how they play and see what goes on in the dugout, hopefully learn from it. … It makes me more hungry, and the adrenalin doesn’t stop here. It keeps going if I play tomorrow in a spring training game with the other guys across the street. I just want to come back here. I want to play as hard as I can and hopefully make an impact.”
After being thrown out, Williams stayed aggressive. In his first at-bat of big league camp, he swung at the first pitch and singled to left field. He had family in the stands, and they made plenty of noise. Williams got to first base and tried to play it cool, only later admitting that he was smiling on the inside.
“I was here watching people, picking brains,” he said. “It all starts there.”
Associated Press photo
Ivan Nova allowed five earned runs on seven hits through four innings. His evaluation of the night?
“Unbelievable,” he said. “I think I had all I needed today.”
“We just had bad communication in the first inning,” Nova said. “That affected my game too much, but I feel really good today. … I was shaking too much. That slowed my game. We threw a couple bad pitches, like the curveball for a homer and the slider for the other homer. In that situation, you have to move the hitter, and we didn’t do it. Sometimes you want to throw that pitch and he doesn’t call that pitch. You start shaking and you get out of what you want to do. I think that happened out there.”
Nova retired seven of the last eight batters he faced, and really didn’t look too bad giving up a run on two singles in the second inning. It was the first inning that caused him problems, and he said that started when Gustavo Molina called for a curveball with two on against Adam Jones. Nova tried to shake off the pitch, but Molina went back to it and Jones clubbed a three-run homer to center field. Two batters later, Matt Wieters homered on a slider.
“(Molina) didn’t see me,” Nova said. “He called a curveball again and he hit a homer. That’s the game. Sometimes you struggle a little, but I have to step up and call him before I throw the pitch. I didn’t. … I was out of my game right there because I gave up the first home run. After that inning, we picked it up and we finished strong. That’s a good thing. I made that adjustment and that’s something positive that I can take out of the game today.”
Joe Girardi agreed with the assessment and said it’s up to Nova to take charge in those situations. As Girardi put it, “he’s the one with the ball.”
“That’s something you have to learn from,” Girardi said. “When you make a pitch, you’d better have conviction. I don’t care if you have to shake 17 times, you better have conviction.”
• X-rays were negative on Robinson Cano’s left hand. He was hit by a pitch near his pinkie, in that sort of meaty part on the side of the hand. Sounds like the Yankees don’t expect it to be an issue. “We’ll see how he is Tuesday, but I don’t imagine it will be long,” Girardi said.
• Nova has said several times this spring that he’s been happy with his offspeed pitches, and today was no different. “I’ve been doing what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I’ve been working on my changeup, I’ve been working on my curveball for a first-pitch strike. I was working on my slider and it was good today the last couple of times so you’ve got to be happy.”
• Girardi said this would be a start to really begin evaluating Nova, and he seemed happy overall. “The first two innings he had no rhythm,” Girardi said. “The last two innings he had great rhythm, he was working quick and he looked very good to me. He just couldn’t seem to get in a rhythm his first two innings and then he found it.”
• Raul Ibanez had another hitless game, going 0-for-3 to drop his average to .065. “I got under a couple of balls,” he said. “But I got them into the air, and I think when I’m making outs in the air it’s much better for me personally than when I’m making outs on the ground like I was earlier in the spring. Obviously, you don’t want to make any outs. You want to hit line drives, and you want to hit balls into the gaps, but today I felt better. The last couple of days I’ve felt better.”
• Center field prospect Mason Williams made his first appearance in a big league spring training game. He pinch ran for Mark Teixeira in the sixth inning and was promptly thrown out trying to steal second base. He was caught stealing by Matt Wieters who threw out three different base runners, one of them a pickoff of Dewayne Wise at second.
• Williams got his first big league spring at bat in the eighth and singled on the first pitch he saw. “I’ll remember that until the last day,” Williams said. “It was an awesome experience. I didn’t smile while I was on the bases, but in my head I was smiling a lot.”
• Eduardo Nunez had his hand wrapped after the game but said he feels fine. His timing is a little off, he said, and his hands feel a little heavy from all the extra work he’s been doing lately, but the pain is gone. This was his second game in a row after sitting out almost two weeks.
• George Kontos made his spring debut with a hitless eighth inning. He struckout the last batter he faced.
• Clay Rapada came out of the bullpen to face a lefty with runners at the corners and two outs. He got a groundball to end the inning. Rapada’s looked pretty sharp this spring, and he’s legitimately tough on left-handers.
• He’s pretty far under the radar, but Dewayne Wise is having a nice camp. He went 2-for-2 today to raise his spring average to .474. He also stole a base (though he was picked off another time).
• Brett Gardner got his fourth stolen base of the spring. He also had an outfield assist… Mark Teixeira had his first double… Ronnier Mustelier got a surprise at-bat and singled… Nunez’s infield single was the Yankees other hit… D.J. Mitchell allowed his first run of the spring but also finished with three strikeouts in two innings.
• Hiroki Kuroda was not in camp today. Girardi said he gave him the day off, told him didn’t have to come in.
Associated Press photo
Here’s the latest from the Associated Press about the second game of Major League Baseball’s exhibition tour of Taiwan. Curtis Granderson had the big home run in the first game. Robinson Cano had the big hit in the second game.
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Robinson Cano doubled in a run in the seventh inning to help an MLB All-Star team beat Taiwan’s national team 5-3 Thursday in the second game of a five-game series.
The New York Yankees’ second baseman also singled and scored in the sixth inning in the game in Taichung.
“They got a great team,” Cano said. “They played a pretty good game.”
The Taiwanese went ahead 3-2 in the fifth, scoring twice on three hits and a walk. The MLB squad tied it in the sixth and added two more runs in the seventh.
Relievers Rich Thompson of the Los Angeles Angels, Ramon Ramirez of the San Francisco Giants and Bill Bray of the Cincinnati Reds kept the Taiwanese scoreless from the sixth inning on.
In the series opener Tuesday, the MLB team won 7-0 in a game halted in the sixth inning because of rain. The teams play in Taichung on Friday before closing the series with two weekend games in Kaohsiung.
• Chien-Ming Wang is heading back to the Nationals. The Washington Post reports that Wang got a one-year deal worth $4 million to return to the Nats’ rotation.
• Don’t count on the Yankees keeping scouting director Damon Oppenheimer just yet. The Orioles still haven’t picked a GM, and the Baltimore Sun reports that Oppenheimer is among those who could still interview for the job. We learned earlier that Yankees pro scouting director Billy Eppler was apparently the runner-up for the Angels GM job.
• Yankees prospects Mason Williams and Dante Bichette Jr. were named the Topps Player of the Year in the New York-Penn League and Gulf Coast League.
• Former Yankees outfielder Juan Rivera was one of the first significant free agents to sign with a new team, agreeing to a one-year deal with the Dodgers.
• Outfielder Jordan Parraz, who had a terrific season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, has signed a minor league deal with the Braves. It includes separate language if he makes the big league club.
• After his one-year stint in the Yankees front office, it took Kevin Towers just one year to land an extension as the GM in Arizona.
Associated Press photo
Yankees at the break: Center field • 07.13.11
The change started late last season when Curtis Granderson finally had enough and asked Kevin Long for help. He made some minor mechanical changes, and since then he’s been one of the most dangerous hitters in the baseball.
At the all-star break, Granderson is a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s always had good power for a center fielder, but now he’s showing Mark Teixeira-type power. While he’s still better against right-handers, he’s no longer a platoon candidate. He actually has a higher slugging percentage against lefties this season. He moved into the No. 2 spot in the order when the Yankees were experimenting with their lineup, and he hasn’t let it go. He’s been so good that Joe Girardi has found it almost impossible to rest him.
Because the improvements started last season, it’s hard to label this kind of production a first-half fluke. Granderson has been this good for almost a year now. He likes to say that the home runs have simply come a little earlier than usual, but he’s about to venture into uncharted home run territory. He’s only five away from his single-season career high, and at this rate he could be there by August. Granderson has started 86 games this season, and he’s played in 87 of them. Girardi might have to be careful about overplaying him in the second half, but so far, it’s been hard to take his bat out of the lineup. And it won’t be any easier without Alex Rodriguez.
Early on, this seemed to be Slade Heathcott’s breakout season. The first-rounder was unbelievably good in April, but he slowed won in May and now he’s on the disabled list with a shoulder problem that reportedly could cost him the rest of the year. Abe Almonte has not had the breakout season the Yankees were hoping for in Tampa, and Eduardo Sosa has been good but not great as Heathcott’s replacement in Charleston. Melky Mesa is hitting .211 in Trenton. The bright spot is Greg Golson, who might be hitting his way into a call-up in Triple-A. Also, keep an eye on Mason Williams in Staten Island. Last year’s fourth-round pick is off to a pretty impressive start.
Do the strikeouts matter?
Before the break, Granderson said he’s been disappointed by his number of multi-strikeout games and by the fact he’s already approaching 100 strikeouts for the season. Obviously it’s not a perfect scenario, but it might simply come with the territory, and as long as it comes with this sort of production, the Yankees might be more than happy with the tradeoff.
Granderson is under contract for next year with a team option for 2013. The Yankees gave up Austin Jackson because they believed Granderson could be their center fielder of the present and the future. Right now, it looks like they were exactly right. Barring something unforeseen, he’ll be around for at least two more years.
Associated Press photo
Yankees organizational depth: Center field • 01.13.11
A little more than a year ago, the Yankees sacrificed their perceived center fielder of the future to obtain a proven center fielder of the future (and the present). Within months of the trade, the Yankees watched Austin Jackson get off to a terrific start in Detroit while Curtis Granderson struggled in New York. By the end of the season, the tide had shifted, and now the Yankees are left hoping Granderson’s second-half momentum carries into 2011.
In the big leagues
The Yankees gave up a lot to land Granderson. He was seen as a plus defensive player with unusual power for a center fielder, and he was also significantly more proven than Jackson, whose lack of power and strikeout totals were obvious concerns. Granderson finished last season by hitting .261/.356/.564 in his final 48 games, and he carried that into a terrific postseason. The Yankees are one of the few teams with two legitimate big league center fielders — Brett Gardner is also more than capable in center — but there’s no question Granderson will be the everyday man at the position. The only question is whether he’ll continue to improve as he steps further into what should be the prime of his career.
On the verge
Greg Golson and Colin Curtis are able to play a role in the big leagues right now. They proved that last season, and although neither got much time in center field at Yankee Stadium, both are able to play the position. Curtis and Golson seem likely to go into spring training competing with Jordan Parraz to be the Yankees fifth outfielder (if the Yankees carry five outfielders). Coming up behind them is one of the great wild cards of the Yankees system. Melky Mesa has tools to spare — arm, speed, power — but he also struck out 297 times the past two seasons, and his .260 average and .338 on-base percentage last season were both career highs, by a lot. If he makes progress, Mesa could be a legitimate everyday player in the big leagues. If not, he could top out at Double-A.
Deep in the system
Abraham Almonte is still on the prospect radar after a injury shortened season in Tampa — my friend Patrick Teale has always been very high on Almonte — but most of the Yankees young center field talent is coming up from the very lowest levels. Slade Heathcott, the Yankees first-round pick in ’09, didn’t put up big numbers in Charleston last year, but he’s still very young with considerable tools and talent. If Heathcott returns to Charleston this season, he could be joined in the outfield by Eduardo Sosa, a natural center fielder who’s bat has yet to match his glove. A half step behind them is last year’s fourth-round pick Mason Williams, another super-athletic kid taken out of high school. There is a lot of raw talent and athleticism here, but that talent has a long way to go. It’s just as you’d expect from this position in the lower levels.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Curtis Granderson
Scranton/WB: Greg Golson
Trenton: Melky Mesa
Tampa: Abe Almonte
Charleston: Slade Heathcott
The true center field depth chart in New York is two names deep: Granderson and Gardner. Both are plus defenders, and the Yankees showed last season that if Granderson gets hurt, Gardner will immediately slide over from left field. Golson and Curtis can certainly handle the position, but as long as at least one of Granderson and Gardner is healthy, there will be no reason for anyone else to see significant time in center field.
As for the minor leagues, the system is full of outfielders who are able to handle center field, it’s a matter of prioritizing that playing time. Curtis will get some center field time in Triple-A, and Damon Sublett could get some time in Double-A. It gets a little more tricky in the lower levels depending on assignments. Whether he’s in Tampa or Charleston, Heathcott will almost certainly be the priority in center field, but Sosa, Williams and Gumbs are coming up behind him and also need time at the position. If the Yankees decide Heathcott needs a little more Low A time — that’s how I have it predicted, at least to start the season — Sosa could see significant time in the outfield corners for the first time. If Heathcott does open in Charleston, the best-case scenario would be for him to finish in Tampa.
Associated Press photo of Granderson and Gardner, headshots of Granderson, Mesa and Almonte
The Yankees first-round pick in 2009 was also a high school position player, and Slade Heathcott was moved cautiously in his first full season. Heathcott opened last year in extended spring training and didn’t join Low-A Charleston until June.
Vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said the Yankees will “most likely” do the same thing this season with both Culver and second-round pick Angelo Gumbs. Both are 18 years old and developing at key defensive positions. Rushing them is not in the plans.
The same sort of caution could be true for fourth-round pick Mason Williams, a 19-year-old center fielder who played five Gulf Coast League games last season. Newman said the Yankees will “see where he is” in spring training before deciding where Williams opens the season.
Newman said there’s “no question” Culver will continue to be developed as a shortstop, but Gumbs will be tested at different positions. He could see some time at second base, and center field is a legitimate option. “We’re still in the evaluation stage,” Newman said.
• Speaking of Heathcott, he hit .258/.359/.352 with 101 strikeouts in 76 games with Charleston last season. It’s entirely possible he’ll return to Charleston for the beginning of the 2011 season. “We’ll see,” Newman said.
• Last year’s third-round draft pick, Rob Segedin, was selected out of Tulane, so he’s older and more advanced than Culver and Gumbs. Segedin will open in Charleston, where he’ll continue to play third base while also getting some reps in right field.
• If David Adams, Corban Joseph and Brad Suttle all open the season in Double-A, they’ll have to mix and match positions, including some reps at DH, to give all three regular at-bats. Newman said there’s a chance one of those three could open at a different level, but it’s a “low” chance.
• Outfielder Cody Johnson, acquired from the Braves this winter, is most likely heading for Double-A instead of Triple-A. He’s been in Double-A for part of the past two seasons, but he has yet to hit above .189 at that level. The guy does have some power, though.
• Don’t rule out lefty Shaeffer Hall for Double-A. He opened last season in Low-A Charleston but pitched his way to High-A Tampa where he had nine wins and a 3.91 ERA in 15 appearances. This is only his second full season, but Hall is already 23 years old, so the Yankees might push him to Trenton to open the season.
• The Yankees have not decided where shortstop Carmen Angelini will open the season — Tampa or Charleston — but this is clearly a season when Angelini needs to finally show something at the plate. “He needs to get it going,” Newman said. Culver and Gumbs are already overshadowing him in the lower levels.
• Pretty much every scouting report you’ll ever read about Graham Stoneburner suggests his ultimate role could be as a reliever rather than a starter. The Yankees, though, will continue to use Stoneburner out of the rotation, and they believe that he could remain a starter if his changeup continues to develop. Stoneburner had a 2.41 ERA between Tampa and Charleston last season, and the Yankees won’t change his role until he pitches himself out of the rotation. “The game is smarter than us,” Newman said.
• I mentioned Anderson Feliz in yesterday’s look at the Yankees second base depth, and Newman sounds excited about the young middle infielder. “He’s a good player,” Newman said. “He’s got hitting ability. He’s got power. He can run.” Feliz is probably going to open in Charleston.
• Fu-Lin Kuo, a third baseman out of Taiwan, could be developing into a legitimate prospect. “He looked like it at times last year,” Newman said. Last season Kuo hit .243 in the Gulf Coast League, but that was his first season in the United States, and Newman said it’s hard to make much of those stats because of the significant cultural adjustment. The Yankees saw some flashes of promise at the plate. Kuo is probably going to open the season back in extended spring training, but he’s a player to keep the name in the back of your mind for now.
Pretty sure Pete took that picture of Heathcott. I just found it in the blog archives.