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Yankees sign Jacoby Ellsbury: What does it mean for their outfield prospects?

Does the Jacoby Ellsbury signing put the futures of Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Tyler Austin in jeopardy?

Jim Rogash

Signing Jacoby Ellsbury helps the Yankees fill out their outfield for 2014 with Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano, though the team could still make a play for Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran if all the chips fall just right. With long term deals comes concern for prospects that may not get their shot when blocked by a more expensive, established veteran, and the Yankees have a trio of outfield prospects that could potentially be impacted by the Ellsbury deal.

Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott each spent the entire 2013 season with Double-A Trenton, putting them in position to start the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre if the Yankees feel like they did all they could do at the lower level. In an injury-shortened season of 83 games, Austin hit .257/.344/.373 with only six home runs. The year prior with the Charleston RiverDogs and Tampa Yankees, Austin combined for sixteen homers. Fourteen of those came at the Low-A level. Trenton's ballpark is pitcher-friendly, possibly explaining some of the power outage, but it's possible that the Yankees will want to test Austin for more than 83 games there. The team has had Austin on a bit of a fast track, so they may see no reason to keep him back next season. Conversely, Heathcott managed to put up his highest games played total with 103 at Trenton last season, hitting .261/.327/.411. He'll be turning 24 next season, so starting him in Triple-A could be a logical move.

Mason Williams is a bit of the odd man out after failing to prove he could hit pitching at the High-A level consistently. The toolsy outfielder consistently ranked near the top of Yankees prospect lists, but it has to be a little concerning that he hasn't yet put it together at the lower levels of the minors. Williams did make it to Double-A briefly at the end of the 2013 season, mainly out of necessity due to injury, but it's almost a given that the Yankees will want to see him perform consistently against better pitching before they move him up the ranks too far.

Assuming that Austin and Heathcott begin the year with the RailRiders in Scranton and Williams starts off no higher than Double-A Trenton, the Ellsbury move doesn't really impact their futures at all. Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells are all ticketed for free agency or the waiver wire within the next year, freeing up two of three outfield spots for any of the prospects that prove they are ready for the majors after next season. With zero of the three having played at Triple-A before, it's unlikely that any of them would be more than a September call-up in 2014. That gives the Yankees time to see how they perform, if they can stay healthy, and potentially give them a taste of the majors late next year. Once room is cleared in the outfield, Austin and Heathcott could very well be given a shot to make the majors in 2015 if they've earned it.

No one is confused about which team they root for, however, and it's always possible that they become trade bait before they see the majors next year. Or maybe the Yankees bypass them in favor of a free agent or big name trade acquisition. All of that is a problem for a different day. The big news is that Ellsbury doesn't damage the outfield prospects' future if they can perform well enough to make the majors. The Yankees have brought in players before that blocked a promising prospect for the future, but that's not the case with Ellsbury.