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April 11, 2013

Notes from the Field

Eastern League Prospects to Follow

by Chris Mellen

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It has been fun putting together prospect lists, organizational rankings, and the like this offseason, but I absolutely love getting out onto the field. There’s something about dissecting a handful of players on a given night, watching for certain trends over a series of games, or just deciding to put the isolated camera on one player.

Spring training served as a warm-up to sharpen the eyes, while getting in general scouting on a large group of players. Now, with the season underway, it’s time to start peeling back the onion on prospects, tracking their development, and getting down to business. I’ll cover multiple leagues this season and should get a chance to scout a wide array of players. So, expect some different flavors in these reports over the course of the year. Today’s article highlights some initial impressions on a handful of prospects in the Eastern League that I feel will be themes to continue to check back on during the season. 

SS Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox)

The 20-year old shortstop is an outstanding fastball hitter, showing premium bat speed and the ability to barrel up just about any heater in his hitting zone. It’s apparent when scouting him that the ball comes off his bat differently than most. The young hitter does, however, have work to do with his handling of breaking balls. These offerings presently give him trouble, and more polished arms are likely to pick up on this now that Bogaerts is going to see extended action in the Eastern League.

I can tell when watching the prospect that he understands where he needs to improve, but the execution isn’t quite there yet, and it’s going to take some time as the level of experience builds. Bogaerts will chase and get out in front of pitches with hard break across his line of sight. My early feel from spring training and the initial look to start the season is that there could be some growing pains ahead of the shortstop while that foundation is built. But, make no mistake: Bogaerts can hit and the talent is there to round into a productive big-league hitter with thunder in the stick. Expect that development to take time to come to fruition, though, and the steps forward to be tied in with his proficiency hitting secondary stuff.

OF Slade Heathcott (Yankees)

I’ve had the chance to see Heathcott in the lower levels, but was looking to really zone in on the outfielder during this opportunity. The defensive ability stands out in center field, with the overall skills to stick at the position. The 22-year-old demonstrates both the instincts and vision to read balls quickly off the bat. Heathcott hunts drives down into the gaps, showing solid closing speed and range that grades as above-average. The routes are precise as well. While I didn’t see him unleash a throw in the flow of play, the plus arm strength showed a few times while he was warming up between innings, when Heathcott decided to let loose.

Offensively, the swing leaves me with mixed feelings. Heathcott’s quick hands are an asset and he can whip the head of the bat through the zone, but there is little leverage and it’s more of a slash, where the outfielder turns his top hand over quickly. The bat also doesn’t stay in the zone very long. The outfielder reminded me a bit of Brett Gardner in hitting style. Although he sees the ball out of the hand well and works to keep his weight back, Heathcott is also overly aggressive with the pitches he chooses to attack. The approach needs some fine-tuning in order for him to make consistent contact. There’s work ahead of the player to fulfill a projection of an average-to-slightly-better regular.

C Sebastian Valle (Phillies)

I remember Valle as an 18-year-old in the New York-Penn League and the body always stood out. He’s continued to fill out since then, with the physical stature to handle the rigors behind the dish. Valle’s receiving skills didn’t scout well in this opportunity, though. He was on the loose side handling pitches and the glove drifted quite a bit when trying to frame offerings. The 22-year-old was also lackadaisical at times, casually stabbing at balls or not moving his feet completely to get in front of ones in the dirt.

On the plus side, the Valle did show some promise with the bat. I was impressed with how Valle was able to quickly pull his hands in against an inside fastball to drive a long home run to left field. The raw power is definitely there. Valle generates plus bat speed with his strong hands and forearms, unleashing a fierce swing. Valle does need to reel it in, though, and he also isn’t overly selective. He’s up at the plate hacking, with almost no plan in place. Even with improvement in the approach, I don’t see him maintaining a high batting average, but he can provide his share of power.

OF Tyler Austin (Yankees)

This was my first time seeing Austin so I set out to really study the player and begin building my scouting base. The 21-year-old stands out physically on the field, with a good amount of muscle on the frame and strength to tap into. The swing is a bit on the long side, but the right-handed hitter has loose hands that enable him to stay inside of the ball. The outfielder shows the ability to barrel up pitches with backspin, generating the type of post-contact extension to hit with lift. It will bear watching how well Austin can keep his hands above the baseball against elevated fastballs in the upper minors. There’s some drop in the back shoulder when he tries to attack them, causing the head of the bat to come up under the ball.

There’s juice in Austin’s stick. I could see the potential for him to hit around 20 home runs or so at his big-league peak. His biggest area of need is keeping his hips from opening up too early, especially when facing secondary offerings. Austin will pull open quickly, which causes his head to fly off target and the bat to yank or wrap around the ball. He’s the type of hitter who has to stay cognizant of keeping his front shoulder on the pitcher and focusing on right-center field. This keeps the swing easy, while allowing Austin to naturally pull the ball and avoid over-swinging.

LHP Drake Britton (Red Sox)

Britton typically brings his fastball in the 92-95 mph range and came out of the gate with his usual velocity. It’s never a question of how hard he throws, though, but where it is going. The left-hander isn’t overly consistent commanding the pitch. When Britton does stay above the ball and has his delivery timed, the heater shows both downward movement and late finish. It can be a nasty pitch when on the corners and down in the lower part of the strike zone. The offering explodes on batters in this area.

The 23-year-old struggles repeating his delivery, a problem that was on display in this scouting opportunity. When he fails to finish the fastball, it stays up, either grabbing too much plate or sailing out of the strike zone to his arm-side. The pitch flattens out considerably as well. I’ve felt for some time that the bullpen was Britton’s ultimate destination; it’s not that he doesn’t have good stuff, but the short bursts can allow him to simplify his delivery and not be stressed with having to repeat it multiple times through a lineup.

LHP Nik Turley (Yankees)

Turley’s pitchability jumps out when watching him. The left-hander has an understanding of how to executive his craft and plan of attack when on the hill. The fastball didn’t light up my radar gun, sitting 88-91 mph, but he utilized both a two-seamer that showed strong arm-side run and a four-seamer that he tried to split the glove-side corner with, especially against lefties. Turley creates leverage with his frame to consistently finish his fastball as well. Although his control was off for most of the night, there’s ease and looseness with his motion that suggests he feels the pitch better.

I wasn’t overly big on the changeup in this look. The offering was flat at 81-83 mph, with little depth, and tended to float. A couple did show arm-side fade, but he had trouble keeping most of them down. Turley’s best pitch was a 78-80 mph slider for which he showed strong feel. The arm angle stayed very consistent to that of his fastball and had batters off-balance or fooled. The lefty can command it for strikes, too, with it grading as a solid-average offering for me. Turley is a pitcher who is going to need plus fastball command to be successful. I saw the stuff for a back-end projection with further polish, though the bullpen may be end up being the best fit long-term given the finer line he walks with his stuff.    

Chris Mellen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here

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