Tyler Austin: While his disappointing numbers in 2013 might not exactly prove it -- he hit just .257 with six home runs for Double-A Trenton last season -- this former 13th round pick back in 2010 has the hitting and power potential to one day be a very productive big leaguer. It was just the year prior that he hit a combined .322 with 17 home runs but he suffered from an ailing wrist for a good portion of the second-half last season.
Defensively he has turned himself into a very solid right fielder and few question his ability to get back to being the ultra-productive player he proved to be prior to 2013, but a return to health is sorely needed. With every other tool in the shed, including great makeup, getting and remaining healthy is all that is required to tapping his great potential.
Aaron Judge: The second of last year's first round picks made by the Yankees is a daunting physical specimen, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 270 pounds of pure muscle [reportedly he has just eight percent body fat], conjuring images of Miami Marlins slugging right fielder Giancarlo Stanton.
Like Stanton, Judge has plus power potential to all fields that will only be optimized if he can learn to keep his swing short and not overextend himself in his approach. He proved to be a very disciplined and patient hitter in college, but he has to prove it at the professional level. Should he do that, however, with his overall top level of athleticism too, he has the potential to be a very, very special player long-term for the Yankees.
Leonardo Molina: Last year's top International free agent signing by the Yankees doesn't have plus tools across the board but they are individually big league average or better already and that combination is rare, and he's just 16 years old. In fact he's getting ready to play in his debut season this coming year and won't turn 17 years old until the beginning of August.
|PRESENT TOOLS: Molina doesn't have plus tools yet but all are big league quality already at 16 years old. (Photo: Patrick Teale/PinstripesPlus.com)|
Mason Williams: Williams, a former fourth round pick back in 2010, falls into the Tyler Austin category as a high-ceiling player with some Double-A exposure who chipped in with a disappointing season last year. He hit just a combined .245 with four home runs and 15 stolen bases in 2013 after hitting a combined .298 with eleven home runs the year prior.
He was coming off of offseason shoulder surgery last year, however, and battled weight issues all season long. More than anything he needs a return to full health, tone down his aggressive approach at the plate [a.k.a be more patient], and get his confidence back up. There is some legitimate Kenny Lofton-like potential here if it all comes together for him and those kinds of ceilings are hard to find.
Closest to the Majors
Zoilo Almonte: The Dominican switch-hitter made his long awaited big league debut last season after spending parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues. While the numbers were not too great -- he hit just .236 with one home run for the Yankees -- he didn't look overmatched at the plate either.
Almonte's track history also suggests initially needing an adjustment period at each new level but picking up his production dramatically the following year and that could be the case now that he has gotten his feet wet at the big league level. He is still rookie eligible and really the only switch-hitting option available at the higher levels, giving him a real big league opportunity in the short-term.
Ramon Flores: This 2008 signing out of Venezuela has been one and remains one of the best 'sleeper' prospects around, mostly because his innate hitting ability hasn't exactly materialized in tangible stats just yet. One of the youngest players in Double-A last season, he hit a respectable .260 with a team-leading 77 walks last year for the Trenton Thunder.
He will just turn 22 years old this Spring Training and therefore has a tremendous ceiling of his own, but the only Double-A outfield prospect not to sustain an injury last season, he should be ticketed for Triple-A Scranton in 2014. And now a member of the 40-man roster, he could be just an injured player away from potentially contributing at the big league level.
Slade Heathcott: Like Almonte and Flores, and as remarkable as it may seem given his injury history over the years, this former first round pick in 2009 is closing in on being big league ready and is on the short list of potential in-house outfield candidates should a rash of injuries befall the big league club.
A definite candidate to be in the 'highest ceiling' category too -- his five-tool potential arguably gives him the highest ceiling in the Yankee farm system -- his 40-man roster designation also makes him one closest to the big leagues. He has to prove that there are no ill-effects from his offseason knee surgery and he has to improve on his numbers from 2013 [.261, eight home runs], and he could be ticketed back for more Double-A seasoning in 2014, but he also has the talent and the confidence to receive a big league call-up in the right circumstances too.
In Part Two we'll examine the sleepers, the outfield prospects who need to make their mark soon, and the ones where the jury is still out.