Before Mason Williams' 2013 campaign, scouts, like Al Skorupa for example, thought of him as the possible Yankee center fielder of the future. Even though he was just coming off of a torn labrum injury, Skorupa was confident that he would develop into an "above average major league regular with a significant chance to be more than that", a player that could hit ".280-.300" and could also be an above-average defender. Most other talent evaluators agreed, putting Williams near the top of organizational top prospect lists. Williams did nothing but disappoint those evaluations and showed everyone that his hit tool was nowhere close to being developed. In his last season, combined between High-A and Double-A, Williams slashed .245/.304./.337 (.641 OPS) with four home runs and 15 stolen bases in 117 games. For someone whose billing was "top prospect", those aren't top prospect-esque numbers. The organization lost enough confidence in him and were not going to bet on him being Bernie Williams 2.0, so they went out and signed Jacoby Ellsbury and extended Brett Gardner.
When Williams came into spring training this year, the expectations were not as high as 2013, but slightly adjusted. Marc Hulet of FanGraphs described them as such:
"Williams’ stock slipped in 2013 as he showed up a little out of shape and with inconsistent effort on the field. He lacked pop last year and, while he’ll probably never be a power hitter, he needs to keep his swing short and quick to the ball. When he’s right, Williams has above-average speed and the ability to swipe 20+ bases. Defensively, he’s a strong fielder with a good arm and range, as well as solid reads... Still just 22, Williams has time to step up his game but he currently projects as more of a solid regular than a true star outfielder."
So instead of a 60-65 grade potential, he now sits at about 50-55 (on a 20-80 scale). That is certainly not bad at all--an everyday starting outfielder could demand $10-15 million a year on today's open market. So, has Williams stepped up in 2014? Not exactly. Through 35 games and 165 PA, Williams has hit .188/.282/.257 (57 wRC+) with one home run, six extra base-hits, and five steals. His struggles were recently documented on NJ.com, where he was said to have "flung his bat across the grass along the first-base line when he popped to left field" after being the only Trenton Thunder batter not to record a hit on May 7th. Although this highlights the makeup issues (problems in dealing with adversity) that have cropped up before, Williams has asserted that he is putting the work in. He has said that he is trying to work on his craft, that he is "...putting more time in the cage, more time on the field." His manager Tony Franklin has stated that he too is trying his best to dig Williams out of his hole:
"You do everything you can to help... You work with them, you talk with them, you show them videos. Hopefully, by the end of this month, he’ll come out of it and start to (hit) well... It’s still early, but by the same token, he’s got to get going."
But is all of this enough? Often times one experiences success in the low minors, only to find that Double-A and Triple-A are too much to handle. The issue of his torn labrum may have permanently sapped his bat speed, and it could also be possible that his ceiling was truly overestimated. When he was one of the top prospects in the Yankees organization in 2012, he was described as having a ~30 hit tool with the potential for 60. It's possible that he'll never reach higher than 45-50. Nonetheless, he still has his defense. Reports from Trenton continue to indicate that he is playing plus-defense in center, and that was probably the basis for his initial promotion in 2013, especially given his ills at the plate.
In assessing Williams' potential, I'd have to echo Franklin: if he does not hit soon, his stock could be permanently damaged. When all is said and done, he could be a plus-defender in center field with a slightly below-average bat. That would not be such a terrible thing, and he would probably do decently in a future corner outfield role if Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are to indefinitely remain in the outfield. Is Mason Williams a top prospect anymore? I don't think so, unfortunately. But that doesn't mean that he can't contribute to the big league club in the future, and it doesn't mean that he won't have trade value. He has the future of a Major League regular or competent backup, a commodity that is never in abundance. It's realistic, yet disappointing considering where his stock has fallen from. I'm hoping that if he turns it around in a hurry, the expectations can adjust in a positive direction.