Baseball America’s new top prospect list for the Yankees isn’t inspiring, but that’s partly because many 2015 prospects (Severino, Bird, Williams, Heathcott…) no longer qualify as “prospects”; they’ve arrived. While Severino is definitely a rotation starter, a bunch of offensive prospects have less clear 2016 roles. So here’s my take on the likely role, or lack of role, of the Yankees’ ready(ish) offensive prospects. Feel free to disagree in the comments! This is all more art than science, but it’s interesting and fun to think through who’s ready, and who has an actual opening, to be part of the team for the next 5-10 years. First, an easy one: Gary Sanchez’s strong AAA performance, and the Murphy trade, make his 2016 role obvious. Absent a February 2016 DWI in Tampa that dislocates his throwing shoulder, he’ll back up Brian McCann. McCann's second-half fade in 2015 (.802 OPS, then .701) may be bad luck, or a sign that it’s not bright to expect more than 120ish games out of a 32 year-old catcher, even if he suffers no DL-stint injury.
Greg Bird’s 46-game debut and ~.850 AA/AAA OPS confirmed Yoda's diagnosis, “no more training do you require.” The problem is where he plays, given Mark Teixeira at 1B and Alex Rodriguez at DH. But A-Rod wore down after July despite only DH'ing, and Teixeira, who turns 36, hasn’t played over 123 games in five years. So Bird easily could start 50 games at 1B and 20 at DH. He also has value as a late-innings 1B defensive replacement -- not that Bird beats Teixeira defensively, but if the team is up 5+ runs by the seventh, why not give the brittle Teixeira a mini-break?
Rob Refsnyder should be … yeah, I got nothing. At first blush, he looks similarly ready-but-blocked to Bird – but Ref is more blocked and, um, worse. NEw 2B Starlin Castro is just one year older (that surprised me!), and his four remaining contract years are more of a barrier to Ref than Teixeira’s one remaining year is to Bird. Blockage aside, I was on the Ref bandwagon a year ago, but that wagon ran into the ditch with Ref’s lack of enough defensive development (he still looked bad in late 2015) and his backslid bat (.271 in his second AAA go-round, with little power). At this point, Ref’s realistic ceiling is an average bat and a slightly below-average 2B, with some utilityman flexibility to play corner outfield. His problem is that the Yankees have that exact profile in Dustin Ackley, who’s more likely to perform at that level: he’s already OK at 2B and a league-average big-league hitter. If Ref can nab anything in a trade, that’s sadly his most valuable use now.
As for Slade Heathcott & Mason Williams: With Aaron Hicks the fourth OF, there’s only one more spot. There’s a tendency, when teams have 2-3 prospects with a similar profile and age, to roll them together: Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy years ago; Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy more recently. But shorthands ignore differences, and while both Heathcott and Williams looked good in brief 2015 cameos, I don’t see the same evidence of Heathcott’s readiness that I do for Williams.
Heathcott’s .719 OPS in AA, then .657 in AAA, don’t scream MLB-ready. While he could be a defensive replacement and pinch-runner without much bat, not only is Hicks already good for that, but the Yankees’ all-thirtysomething OF is brittle – so both the fourth and the fifth outfielder could get a few dozen starts. I don’t think Heathcott has shown he’s qualified for that; his bat really could hurt the team in more than scattered duty.
Williams’s history is weird: he was terrific in A (2011-12), then godawful in AA (2013-14). With A-AA often considered the biggest jump, that dropoff sure made him look overmatched. Turns out he wasn’t overmatched, just a punk – look at this 2013 report, which reads like a note the principal sent home to Mason's mom: "The word often used to describe Williams is immature .... [T]he Yankees [had] to remove him from games due to lack of effort. … He didn't run anything out. … [I]n late April Williams was arrested on DUI...."
Yikes – but like many guys who were jackasses at 21 (myself included), he seemed to grow up when his jackassery was right about to assassinate his future. I wonder what made the difference: was getting arrested a wake-up call? did some coach finally reached him? did Jesus provide a Ben Carson-like religious epiphany to stop stabbing people in their belt buckles? Either way, in 2015 Williams finally stepped up: his .782 at AA and .814 at AAA far exceed Heathcott’s and, with his stellar defensive rep, more than earned him a spot as a top-flight defensive replacement/pinch-runner with enough hitting success to think he wouldn’t hurt the team if pressed into starting duty.
I’ll mention Aaron Judge and Eric Jagielo just barely, because neither is ready. Judge’s potential is exciting, but the high K rate (25% of PA) accompanying his strong AA hitting (.866 OPS) was, in retrospect, a preview of his even higher K rate (28.5%), and general awfulness, at AAA (.224/.308/.373). Judge’s best-case scenario is a second-half callup if in the first half at AAA he not only mashes, but stops K’ing over once a game; more likely is a September cup of coffee. Jageilo’s half-year AA line (.284/.347/.495 in 248 PA) was almost exactly like Judge’s (.284/.350/.516 in 280 PA), with fewer Ks. But Jageilo has, um, no position. His 2014 and 2015 fielding percentages at 3B were .887 and .883, with a combined 25 errors in just 101 games. So Jageilo has a lot of work left either (a) to get passable at 3B (and hope Headley’s three remaining contract years don’t block him), (b) to learn 1B (and hope Bird doesn’t block him), or (c) to show he hits well enough to be a DH. Which is all to say, don’t hold your breath for Jageilo or Judge to have a 2016 impact, despite their obvious talents.