Former first-round pick and Baseball America Top 100 prospect Slade Heathcott finally made it to the majors in 2015 following six turbulent years in the New York Yankees’ system. He was promoted on May 20 when center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury went down with a knee sprain.
Slade was electric in his first six games in the Bronx, slashing .353/.353/.588 in 18 plate appearances while showing off his plus speed in the outfield. He was one of the biggest surprises of the spring for New York last year, and carried that hot hand into the early days of the season. Of course, this Cinderella story ended the way most involving Heathcott do: he got hurt. Only nine days after receiving his first taste of the big leagues, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a grade-two strain of his right quadriceps, an injury that requires at least a month to heal.
It was not exactly a surprise, but it was still hard not to be disappointed. Heathcott has been ranked among the Yankees’ Top 10 prospects by Baseball America five times, but all that promise has been derailed by a complete inability to stay on the field. He has never put together anything approaching a full season as a professional, topping the 100 games played mark only once.
His results when healthy have been just encouraging enough for the team to hold out hope that he’ll eventually be able to put his impressive tools to use. Slade earned a September call-up despite a lackluster season with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, and once again raked with the MLB club, albeit in a small sample size. Despite some flashes of success in his big league debut, the season was another huge disappointment for Heathcott. He’ll be 25 on Opening Day. With several lost seasons of crucial development time, it isn’t clear how much ceiling he still has, even if he somehow does manage to stay on the field for an extended period.
One can’t help but feel like Heathcott missed his best chance to stick with the Yankees last season. The acquisitions of Dustin Ackley last July and Aaron Hicks in November mean the team currently has no need for him on the 25-man roster. Even if one of their brittle starting outfielders does go down, it’s far from clear that Heathcott would be the first choice to receive a call-up, even to sit on the bench. Versatile lefty outfielder Ben Gamel had a breakout 2015 and was added to the 40-man roster in December. He can play all three outfield spots competently and had a solid .300/.358/.472 line in 551 plate appearances for the RailRiders.
Also on the 40-man roster is fellow disappointing toolsy outfielder Mason Williams, who also made his major-league debut filling in for the hobbled Ellsbury before going down with his own long-term injury. Another formidable opponent in Slade’s quest for playing time will be the team’s number-one prospect according to Baseball Prospectus and the great Keith Law, Aaron Judge. Despite struggling in his first taste of Triple-A, Judge is expected to claim Carlos Beltran’s starting right-field job by 2017, if not sooner. With recently acquired speedster Lane Adams also in the mix, Heathcott may find himself fighting to stay in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup, let alone getting a shot in New York.
Realistically, it’s difficult to imagine Slade Heathcott having much of an impact at the major league level in 2016. Brian Cashman has discussed using the last remaining open bench spot as a revolving door, much as he did with the 12th bullpen slot last season, so Slade may be in the mix as an occasional pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
Perhaps the best-case scenario for him and the Yankees at this point is if he accumulates some much needed MiLB playing time. Putting together 500-plus plate appearances would go a long way towards showing New York what they have in the talented outfielder. On the other hand, with another injury-plagued season it seems likely that the Yankees may begin asking themselves how long they are going to keep wasting a roster spot on a guy who doesn’t play, especially when they have such impressive depth at the position.
Another dynamic Grapefruit League performance could change everything, however. His exciting blend of power, speed, and defense means that he has the potential to force his way into the Yankees’ future plans as long as he’s able to stand and hold a bat. Heathcott should be one of the most interesting players to watch in Tampa in the coming weeks.