(No need to rush the kid. Courtesy of MiLB.com)
Prospect huggers everywhere were rejoicing last Friday when they got wind of scouting director Damon Oppenheimer's latest comments on 2 of the Yankees' hottest prospects. Speaking to Jack Curry of YES, Oppenheimer had very high praise for both Mark Montgomery and Slade Heathcott, calling Montgomery's slider "sick," describing Heathcott as an "impact player," and leaving the door open for both of them to be on the Yankee roster sometime in 2013.
This comes as no surprise to anybody who's familiar with Montgomery's body of work. I've advocated for his call up to the show on multiple occasions, once before last year's roster expansion date (which may have been a little hasty) and recently as part of the MiL group I think we will see in a Yankee uniform in 2013. But Heathcott is a different story. He's 22 years old, but not nearly as polished as Montgomery, and with less high-level experience under his belt. Heathcott is as toolsy as they come, but he's got more working against him than for him on the path to the Majors in 2013 and to look past that would be wrong.
For starters, there's the very obvious and very problematic health issues with Heathcott. He's missed significant time with multiple shoulder injuries in his short professional career, the latest one costing him big chunks of his 2011 and 2012 seasons. Scouts who have watched him this year have commented that he still appeared to be favoring the shoulder a bit, so that's definitely an area of concern for the Yankees and something they need to keep their eye on. Heathcott hit the ground running when he came back this season, but he still played in just 83 games (including the AZFL) and has yet to play any more than that in any year prior. Before we get too caught up on his tools and potential impact, let's see if the kid can play 100-120 games this year without getting hurt.
As far as that impact goes, while it's fair to rate Heathcott as a 5-tool player right now, it seems like a bit of a stretch to suggest he could ride that all the way to the Majors this year when he has so little experience above A-ball. Heathcott's .307/.378/.470 slash in Tampa was impressive this year, as was his absolutely dominant showing in the AZFL, but that was still just High-A level competition and an after-season league known for being a hitters' league. Heathcott is expected to start 2013 in Double-A, which makes sense given what he showed this season, but there's absolutely no reason to rush him at that level. Along with needing to play more games for the sake of proving he can stay healthy, Heathcott also needs to play more games to add polish to his tools and become a more balanced hitter and better baserunner.
Tying the health and experience themes together, Heathcott probably also needs time in the Minors to continue to mature as a person and a baseball player. While scouts love how hard he plays and think that type of hustle will serve him well, Heathcott did raise some eyebrows barreling over a catcher at the plate in the AZFL, and isn't that far removed from starting a major bench-clearing brawl a few years back. He's spoken openly about his other past personal problems as well, which you can search for on the internet if you aren't familiar, but the point is that rushing a player like Heathcott to the Majors could do more harm than good for his future. The Yankee clubhouse is a great place to foster a more professional approach to the game, but it and the bright lights of NYC aren't the best place for a kid to learn how to grow up. Slade has some growing up to do and that's better done in the Minors.
To keep this whole discussion grounded, let's remember that Oppenheimer has talked up prospects before. It's part of his job. Nobody is going to go on record saying a top prospect doesn't have it, and even though all signs point to both Heathcott and Montgomery having "it," this could just be a case of Oppenheimer using Curry as a mouthpiece to tout up guys' trade value. But both players clearly have a path to the Majors within the Yankee organization, and it's not out of the question for Heathcott to make his debut in 2014 if he stays healthy and continues to display his 5-tool talent this year. I just don't see the benefit to him or the Yankees by moving that timetable up to 2013, regardless of how well he plays. Tyler Austin, yes. Slade Heathcott, no.