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Know Your Prospects: Slade Heathcott, CF, New York Yankees

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If you’ve played sports, whether recreationally or professionally, chances are you’ve come across a player like Slade Heathcott. You know, the kind of player who has all the talent in the world, but just comes off as a total, well, there’s no easy way to say it, unlikable dick. You worry if their immaturity is going to derail them (Milton Bradley), or if they’re going to harness it and figure it out (Josh Hamilton).

And one of the major knocks ever since the New York Yankees drafted Heathcott with the twenty-ninth pick in the 2009 amateur draft has always been that immaturity. In high school, he was arrested for driving under the influence, was booted from his Texarkana, Texas, high school baseball team for academic reasons, and even pulled a gun on his father (who, I’ve heard, is not a saint either).

Still, Heathcott really turned things around after the Yankees sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous as a nineteen-year-old.

His first full professional season sent him out of AA and to the low-A South Atlantic League’s Charleston RiverDogs where he posted fairly pedestrian offensive numbers (.258 average, 2 homeruns, and 30 RBI in 76 games) but showed plus speed, range, and arm strength: inklings of the player he could be. Watching him last year left me divided; one day I saw flashes of first-round talent, and then the next, someone who looked to be pressing at the plate, trying to live up to his billing. But when the season finally winded down, I was more on the skeptical side. This guy’s right behind only Montero, Romine, and Vizcaino in Baseball America‘s Yankees’ list and we get a .250 average, 2 dingers, and 15 stolen bases, along with 10 caught stealings?!

But this year, I’ve been more impressed with Heathcott across the board. He’s become more patient at the plate. He’s taking walks in places where he should take walks, instead of trying to be the hero. As a result, he’s amongst South Atlantic League leaders in on-base percentage (.394), average (.314), and total bases (68). With the patience, has come power, or at least signs of it: through 34 games, he already has more homeruns (3) than he did through 76 games last year.

His stance and swing are unique. For a power/speed guy, he’s more upright and open than one would expect, and it’s allowed him to put more of an upswing on the ball than last year. He’s not quite Craig Counsell, but he stands tall in the box and consistently puts the ball in play hard. His swing is still somewhat erratic; he has games where drives or flies the ball every time and games where he only chops, grounds, and slashes it. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: he’s four off the pace in doubles (11) and two off the pace in triples (2), some of which will turn into homeruns as he develops.

His play in center has never been questioned. He’s got great range and is athletic enough to make difficult plays look routine. His arm, considered among the best in the entire Yankees’ system, is outstanding even after 2010 off-season shoulder surgery. Just tonight, he nabbed the Augusta Green Jackets’ Raynor Campbell, a guy with six stolen bases already on the young season, on a play at home…in the top of the 11th inning with his team already down by two. And god, do I wish I had video of it!

He’s become a force at the top of the RiverDogs’ lineup and in the outfield, and I know that my time to watch Heathcott develop and flourish is dwindling.

But for all the positive developments in Heathcott’s game, there is a huge elephant, which is somehow standing under a black cloud, in the middle of the room, and it might just keep him from a mid-season promotion: that damn immaturity.

Back on Friday, May 13, Heathcott positively imploded, exploded, went postal—whatever you want to call it—starting a bench clearing brawl, after just the first pitch of the game, which pitted his Charleston RiverDogs and the Greenville Drive against each other. He was subsequently suspended for five games.

And I could see it coming.

On May 9, I saw a glimpse of Heathcott’s renewed hotheadedness before the now-infamous brawl. In a bases loaded situation with his team down against the West Virginia Power, he was picked off by right-handed pitcher Elias Diaz for the third out. He threw his helmet down, walked over to the dugout, and waited until someone brought out his glove and hat. During his between innings throw-arounds, he was angrily whipping the ball to the leftfielder, routinely overthrowing him, and making him run all the way to the Power’s bullpen to get it. And then after making a routine putaway on a flyball, Heathcott did the same thing in a game situation and overthrew the shortstop cutoff. It was childish.

And then tonight, that same night where he went 2-for-5 with a walk and threw out a Green Jackets’ runner at home, it popped up again. On the first pitch of an at bat late in the game, Heathcott was brushed back by the Augusta Green Jackets’ Tom Vessella. Nothing big. But then with a two-ball count, he was brushed back again, and this time the pitch was a little closer. Heathcott avoided the pitch, but threw up his hands and exchanged words with catcher Jeff Arnold. Nothing came of it, but for someone who knows his history, and knows what it could have become, it was something.

Of course I stopped recording preemptively.

Did I mention it was just his third game back from suspension?

Prospects In Action: Zack Wheeler, RHP, Augusta GreenJackets – May 12, 2010

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If you’re a first round pick or a budding superstar, chances are you don’t want me in the stands when it’s your turn to take the bump.

A few weeks ago, I coaxed a bad start out of the Rome Brave’s Arodys Vizcaino.

And last Wednesday, I hexed the Augusta GreenJacket’s flamethrowing righty Zack Wheeler. In just 2.2 miserable innings, Wheeler gave up six hits, six earned runs, three bases on balls, two wild pitches, and a hit by pitch.

How’s that for a line?

I wanted Wheeler to do well last night. I mean, I really did. About six months ago, I wrote this post about Wheeler. It basically put me behind the wheel (no pun intended) of the Wheeler bandwagon, before there even really was one. There’s just something about a 6’4″ righthander that touches 95 miles per hour that intrigues me like nothing else but maybe a pizza with a donut topping.

But as is the course of the last couple weeks, another big prospect left town a beaten man, leaving me wondering how much longer I can continue this bad luck streak of awful starts by good pitchers.

When the night started, it looked like Wheeler was ready to deal. His bullpen session left the family next to me confounded; they hadn’t seen anyone with the velocity of Wheeler and they weren’t afraid to repeatedly admit it, noticing my notebook and hoping I was someone who could quote them in something worthwhile.

And even the catcher, Tommy Joseph, was feeling good about their chances: “Ah, it’s just an 88 mile per hour changeup. No big deal!”

And, like clockwork, Wheeler’s first inning went well.

His fastball sat at 95-96 according to the stadium gun, a pretty big bump from the 93 he had been previously reported at. One pitch caused a buzz amidst the Charleston fans when it registered at 99 miles per hour on the big board. It was an obvious glitch in electronics, an outlier of the purest sense, but a cool glitch, nonetheless.

The first thing I noticed about Wheeler was his delivery. It features an odd hesitation with his lead foot; instead of using the weight of his right leg to propel his arm and body weight forward, he basically takes it out of the mix, dangling it over the forward part of the mound until his snake-like right arm reaches its pinnacle and begins its downward movement. Only then does he finally drop the foot. The hesitation, once spotted, seems very out of place for a power pitcher. In person, it’s much more pronounced than in any of the video I’d previously seen.

You can clearly see that he is not consistently repeating the movement in this video. On the first pitch, the hesitation is apparent, but by the third pitch, there’s almost no delay.

That being said, Wheeler generates tremendously easy velocity from his tall, broad, and lanky frame.

His changeup had good running movement, coming in at 87-89 miles per hour. He didn’t throw many curveballs, which was a major disappointment since I’ve heard it’s a good looking pitch. When he did throw it, it spun in almost exclusively at 78 miles per hour. It has a tight rotation and looks like it could be a true power curve. My only notes are: “78, 78, 78, small break.”

In the first, Wheeler gave up just a run on a bloop single to left field.

But that’s just about all the positives I have to report. Check out this recap of Wheeler’s second inning:

  • Deangelo Mack grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.
  • Garrison Lassiter strikes out swinging.
  • Kelvin Castro singles on a fly ball to right fielder Ryan Lollis.
  • With Raymond Kruml batting, passed ball by Thomas Joseph, Kelvin Castro to 2nd.
  • Raymond Kruml singles on a ground ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Kelvin Castro scores.
  • Jimmy Paredes doubles (5) on a fly ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Raymond Kruml scores.
  • Justin Milo singles on a ground ball to left fielder Dan Cook. Jimmy Paredes scores.
  • Luke Murton walks. Justin Milo to 2nd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Justin Milo scores. Luke Murton to 3rd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Luke Murton scores.
  • Robert Lyerly grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.

It was ugly. When Joseph allowed the passed ball, it looked like there was a breakdown in communication between the battery mates. However, that wasn’t my biggest concern.

In the second inning, Wheeler’s velocity dropped almost four miles per hour. Instead of the 94-96 he was tossing in the first, his first five pitches in the second were 90, 91, 90, 92, and 90. And it remained there for much of the inning. He got back up to 94 during the Luke Murton at-bat, but the results were just not there.

Was he pitching with adrenaline in the first? Did he over-exert himself? Or had he just lost control?

I don’t know. But I do know that to the semi-trained eye, each time an abbreviated velocity reading popped on the board during the second, I put a mini red flag up. And when he lost all control during the second half of the second inning, I was reminded of something I saw during the bullpen session.

While working in the bullpen, Wheeler would start his windup, then look down to see where that lagging lead foot was, and then continue on.

I do not know if the pause I saw was present when he pitched in high school. But to me, it certainly looked more pronounced and intentional. It did not look like he was quite comfortable with it yet and it looked like something he was thinking about. And when you pitch, you don’t want to think.

Strangely enough, Augusta’s manager sent him back out there for the third. His velocity returned, but after a hit-by-pitch and a nasty walk, Wheeler’s night was over.

So, there it is. I wish I could send San Francisco fans revelatory information about the ace potential of Zack Wheeler, but I simply can’t. I’m still confused by what I saw.

For one inning, Zack Wheeler looked every bit the $3.3 million San Francisco thinks he is worth. But for the next 1.2 innings, he looked every bit Jason Grilli, the last pitcher the Giants picked up in the first round.

We’ll just have to wait.

Note: That obnoxious high-pitched voice isn’t me. That little rat ruined made my night a living hell.