The New York Yankees are in the midst of an interesting prospect position competition. They have two outstanding outfielders with very similar skill sets. Both currently play center field.
Mason Williams was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. The left-handed-hitting 21-year-old has a composite .317 batting average in parts of three seasons in the Yankees' system.
Zachary Slade Heathcott was selected out of Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas. He was the 29th overall selection in the first round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
I watched Heathcott during this past Arizona Fall League.
Slade Heathcott. His name has the sound of an old-time, rootin', tootin', gun-totin' cowboy movie star. From what I've seen of him, Heathcott has the same energy and aggressive approach to playing baseball as a top-flight, long-range riding cowboy on the Silver Screen. Slade Heathcott. What a perfect name for a baseball player.
An accomplished athlete, Heathcott caught the attention of scouts when he played the outfield and pitched in high school. His offensive numbers were staggering. Heathcott was pretty good on the mound as well.
At Texas High, Heathcott played football and baseball. He had seasons hitting .456, .489, .530 and .472. His abilities earned him a baseball scholarship to Louisiana State University. Instead of playing college baseball, Heathcott signed his contract and began his career by playing only three games in the Gulf Coast League.
Heathcott's first full season came in 2010, when he got 351 plate appearances for Charleston in the low Class A South Atlantic League. He hit .258 and stole 15 bases. Heathcott struck out 101 times.
The purpose of a Minor League development program is to prepare players and refine their skills. Exposing players to increasingly better competition allows the player to become more consistent and confident. Heathcott has shown improvement every year of his career. The trend will likely continue if he can remain healthy.
In 2011, Heathcott played most of the season repeating his Charleston experience. He hit .271 in 237 trips to the plate. It was a nice improvement. Last year, Heathcott spent most of the year at high Class A Tampa, where he improved again. This time, he hit .307 in 243 plate appearances.
Heathcott carried a high school football knee injury and a baseball shoulder injury into his professional career. He has had two recent shoulder surgeries that have cost him playing time and repetition.
Playing this past fall in Arizona, Heathcott made up for lost time and opened a number of eyes with his outstanding and complete play on both sides of the ball. Known as a multiple-tool player at the time he was selected by the Yanks, Heathcott displayed all the skills in Arizona, playing 18 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions.
While I have been trained to profile offense first in my reports, it was Heathcott's defense and speed that initially caught my attention. His offense was really solid, but his play at all three outfield positions was equally outstanding.
Heathcott showed speed as the focal point of his toolbox. Reading the ball quickly and accurately off the bat in the high Arizona sky, Heathcott ran down fly balls that many other outfielders might chase as base hits. His arm strength and accuracy told the tale of a former pitcher. Heathcott easily showed enough strength and carry on his throws to play right field in the future. But that may not be his best position.
A lack of power may be the only tool lacking in Heathcott's statistical history. However, he did hit six doubles, three triples and a home run in Arizona. Again, his speed was on display while running the bases with intensity.
For me, Heathcott profiles best as a center fielder. And a very good one, at that. I have no doubt about his ability to take charge in the outfield and hustle after every ball he thinks he can catch. I think Heathcott's power will emerge. If it does, he may very well fit as a right fielder. I say that because Heathcott has a proportioned physique with a broad back and shoulders, strong legs and strong, muscular arms. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the 22-year-old Heathcott likely doesn't have much physical growth remaining. But he may add even more strength.
Heathcott uses his speed by bunting on occasion, but I think it's a skill that requires more repetition.
In the Fall League, Heathcott showed patience at the plate, walking 12 times. He struck out 14 times but had an excellent on-base percentage of .494. Heathcott hit .388 for the season in 67 at-bats.
During the course of the fall, I saw Heathcott reduce his aggressive approach at the plate by using much more measured and tempered mechanics. That's important for his future.
At this stage of his development, it is crucial that Heathcott concentrates on seeing pitches well, recognizing what those pitches are and remaining patient. The home runs will come. For now, he has to get on base and learn how to use his speed to steal bases with a more fluid and fundamentally sound approach.
Heathcott will leave everything on the field. He will give a total effort and at times overplay the situation. That is far superior to having to motivate a player.
MLB.com ranks the left-handed-hitting Heathcott the Yankees' fourth-best prospect. He has been invited to Spring Training.
The Yanks will watch both Heathcott and Williams as they continue to vie for positions in the outfield. Competition among similar players at the same position has a tendency to accentuate the best. The depth Williams and Heathcott provide should be more than welcome in the future.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.