The New York Yankees outfield as presently constructed is one that is built on aging superstars who are being paid for what they did in the prime of their careers with other teams. Vernon Wells, Ichiro Suzuki and Curtis Granderson are all key pieces to the Yankees outfield puzzle in 2013, but none of them are signed to long term contracts. While those salaries may be a burden to the current payroll, they are a symbol of what the organization hopes is their old philosophy. With a looming budget set at $189 beginning next season, the organization has set a priority on developing their own depth down on the farm so that they do not have to commit long term dollars in the free agent market.
With a plethora of promising outfield prospects who have star major league potential, the Yankees are hoping that their second ranked prospect by Baseball America, Slade Heathcott can finally fulfill the promise that the organization saw in him when they selected him with their first round draft selection (29th overall) in the 2009.
Heathcott is coming off of a stellar season for Class-A Tampa of the Florida State League where he batted .307 with five homers and 27 RBI in just 215 at bats. Heathcott then played for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League where he finished third in batting; posting a .388 average in 18 games.
The development process of Heathcott has been dramatically slowed due large in part to battles with injuries, having undergone surgery on both of his shoulders which has allowed him to play in just 197 games over his four year career. A guy who is known for his all out style of play, Heathcott realizes that if he is going to become the star player he has the potential to evolve into, he needs to be on the field consistently.
“I don’t like the word cautious,” said Heathcott. “But, one of my main goals is to try and learn how to play smart. I never will back off from playing hard, that’s just how the game should be played. But, I do know that there is definitely times and plays that can be backed off a little bit. It’s part of the process of a younger player learning how to play the game and how to play it right.”
Scouts have long praised Heathcott and raved about his scrappy style and hardnosed attitude. His acrobatic diving catches and crashes into the outfield fences while admirable have become a cause for concern with some within the organization. Heathcott equates his style of play on the diamond to a hard hitting free safety in football, which he also happened to do growing up in Texas.
“It’s just how I’m wired,” explained Heathcott. “Playing football and wrestling kind of just gave me that mentality. There are four or five reasons why I motivate myself everyday to play hard.”
The most important one of those reasons came to light almost three years ago to the day when Heathcott’s life changed forever. He recalls the date on command as well as an average person could remember birthdays or holidays. This date was one that Heathcott admits to being the most important day of his life.
“April 4, 2010,” said Heathcott.” I heard a sermon on what the cross meant. I had heard it plenty of times before and it’s something that night, it was the first time in my life that I had felt God speak to me. It was just one of those surreal moments that changed my life forever. I just thank God for his grace. I know there are a lot of things I did that could have just thrown away my career. Stupid decisions, immaturity.”
Heathcott added, “It’s one of those things that just finally opened my eyes and he just spoke to me. He just said, “open your eyes, look what you’re throwing away, look what blessings you have, look at the people around you.“ There I was, not taking full advantage of it and I think it was completely disrespectful to a lot of people; including me, my family and my friends. It’s just something I apologize for now but it all goes back to everything happening for a reason.”
The 22-year-old Heathcott had endured more hardships and heartbreak as a teenager than many people are forced to cope with in a lifetime. He had a gun pointed at him, enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and was forced to live out of a pickup truck during his high school years while his father was in jail and his mother nowhere to be found. All of those demons still lingered with him as he signed a $2.2 million dollar contract with the Yankees when he was just 18 years old.
“I think everybody goes through things in life, I think everybody makes bad decisions in life and we all mess up,” admitted Heathcott. “It just depends how we learn from those mistakes and how we carry on from that point forward.”
In talking to players and people who have been around Heathcott in years past, they can sense a level of maturity in him that they’ve never seen from the centerfielder. With an opportunity of a lifetime at his fingertips, Heathcott is thankful to finally reach the Double-A level and cites his ability to grow and mature as a person his reason for finally reaching this stage of his career.
“I’m happy with where I am at,” said Heathcott. “With everything that has happened and things like that, it’s been good for self confidence and for just a feeling of satisfaction.”
Heathcott added, “Thanks to the grace of the good lord, the maturity really helps me, not that I’m mature in any means or any way. I still have a lot of things that are bad. But, it’s nice knowing that everything happens for a reason and the only thing that I really have to work on is truly believing that and sticking with that every single day. Ever since I accepted Christ in my life, I’ve always known that there is a reason that everything happens. My faith is tested every day. It’s a struggle. At the end of the day I know that I am here for a reason. If I get injured, whether I like it or not. If something happens, it happens for a reason and we don’t know what it is, we may never know. “
As a player who carries tremendous pride and respect with him wherever he goes, a mature Heathcott now understands that because of the light he is casted in and the profession he has chosen, he is by default a role model. That aspect of his fame is a key component of what forced him to change the way he approached his life.
“Whether it was partying, whether it was whatever it may be. I just wasn’t taking care of myself the way I needed to be,” Heathcott admitted. “I wasn’t preparing the way I needed to be. I think whatever level you are at, whether it is high school, college, professional baseball; I think there are people who look up to you at all times. It doesn’t matter who you are, somebody is looking up to you and if I’m setting a bad example, what good am I doing?
Heathcott cites one of his role models as a guy who has had to endure similar hardships and demons to reach the pinnacle of not only his career but his life in general.
“Josh Hamilton is definitely a guy I look up to,” said Heathcott. “Obviously, his road and my road are completely different. But, the things that he has gone through, I can relate to. He is just an unbelievable guy.”
In the grand scheme of the Thunders success this season and ultimately the New York Yankees as an organization moving forward, the development of Heathcott along with fellow outfield prospect Tyler Austin is an essential building block to the Yankees master plan. Austin has grown close to Heathcott over the last two years and like many of his other teammates, says that his intimidating attitude is not one that runs deep.
“Slade couldn’t be a better guy; he would do anything in the world for you,” admitted Austin. “He would give you the shirt off of his back. He is one of the most genuine guys you will ever meet. He is an awesome guy to play with. He leaves everything that he has on the field, every pitch, every play. He is a little loud, he going to let you know that he’s there, but he’s really fun to be around I’m looking forward to playing with him this year.”
Thunder reliever Danny Burawa added, “When we were first in Charleston, I couldn’t get a read on him, I didn’t understand him. I kind of avoided him until I got to know him. When you really get to know him, he is a genuine great guy who will bend over backwards for anyone. He has a strong personality and that’s what I didn’t get at first but once you accept his personality, he’s one of the best guys in the organization to be around. Definitely a person you want to be friends with and is a good person to have in your corner.”
Heathcott already remembers April 4 as being the day that changed his life forever. Come opening night in Portland on Thursday, which just so happens to be April 4, Heathcott will reach another milestone in his career when he make his Double-A debut in what he hopes is a season that will catapult him to the Bronx in the not too distant future. After missing some action this spring with a minor foot injury, the five-tool centerfielder has a clean bill of health and appears poised for a breakout season. With his no nonsense attitude and hustle, he will serve as a catalyst both offensively and defensively for what may go down as the most collectively talented outfield in the 20 year existence of the Thunder.