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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?

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