Baseball America's new top-10 prospect list is out. Mason Williams is nowhere to be seen.
I wrote last June that Mason Williams still had the potential to be a top prospect. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury just a few weeks later. All told, Williams hit .318/.397/.398 in 54 minor league games and .286/.318/.571 in a brief 8-game stint in the majors.
The short version of the case for Williams is this: he's a young (just 24 in 2016), former top prospect, speedy outfielder who can play defense, rarely strike out, hit for some power, and is MLB-ready. The short version case against Williams is: he was really bad in 2013 an 2014, is somewhat injury prone (though not as bad as Slade Heathcott), and has had makeup issues when he struggles.
There is some probability that Williams is Slade Heathcott, and the cumulative injuries that he has suffered will prevent him from ever playing a substantial number of games at the major league level. I don't know what that probability is, but I don't think it's insurmountably high.
If injuries do not stop him, every indication is that Williams has the talent to be a pretty good major league hitter. I think there are three different scenarios if Williams remains reasonably healthy:
- 4th Outfielder. His hitting skills don't collapse, but never really develop. Williams combines good enough defensive skills and strong-side platoon splits (.327/.405/.433 vs RHP in 2015, .275/.339/.353 vs. LHP) to become a good 4th outfielder. He ends up being a Chris Young 2014-type, but with the stronger platoon side.
- Regular Outfielder. Williams clicks enough on offense and maintains his defense to become a pretty good MLB regular. He doesn't have to be all that good to be a 2+ win outfielder. Billy Burns hit .294/.334/.392 (102 wRC+) with -3.4 defensive runs and was worth 2.3 fWAR last season. Other examples: Ben Revere (98 wRC+ 1.9 fWAR), Austin Jackson (94 wRC+ 2.3 fWAR).
- Star. Williams keeps hitting like he did in 2015, maintains his defensive abilities, and maybe develops more power with age. There's no reason he can't follow the pre-2015 career path of AJ Pollack (broke out at 26 with .302/.353/.498 in 2014 after a similar earlier career). Other potential comps: Kevin Pillar, Ender Enciarte, even Mookie Betts.
The point here: Williams has real baseball talent. Speed, a low strikeout rate, and a swing that generates more power than a slap hitter are a great combination. That's why he was a top prospect in the first place. He's shown that talent in the high minors. He's still young. It's easy to see Williams being the best Yankee outfielder in 2016.
By any definition of a top prospect, that's a top prospect. I love young guys like Dustin Fowler, Tyler Wade, and Wilkerman Garcia, but they are huge lottery tickets at this point. If any of them are in Williams' spot two years from now (near the majors, if blocked by current players), they will have had enormously successful years. The expected future value of Williams is much higher than these guys.
For an easier comparison, look at Rob Refsnyder, who is a top-10 prospect according to Baseball America. Refsnyder is a year older than Williams, has far less defensive talent, and is also on the edge of the MLB roster. He has a lot more playing time in the high minors (858 Triple-A PAs), but took a few steps back in 2015 (.271/.359/.402). Refsnyder is still a prospect, but I don't see any argument that he's better at baseball than Mason Williams, especially since they both seem likely to end up playing the same position.
I get placing the experienced, high-ceiling prospects who are a little bit younger than Williams higher. I'm not going to argue with spots 1-4. But Williams is a better prospect than a lot of these guys, and may be the 5th best player in the Yankee farm system. I get that he's 'old news' in some sense, and prospecting is so often about the new and shiny. Gary Sanchez's revival this season should teach us about that bias. If Williams were a stock, I'd buy. His price is way too low right now.