When the Yankees drafted Slade Heathcott several years back, they saw an extremely talented high schooler who they felt fortunate to land picking so late in the first round of the 2009 MLB Draft. Of course, there was a reason that Heathcott was available to them. He had an unusually rough childhood growing up in a chaotic household in Texarkana, Texas, and there were serious questions about his character. His minor league years became a saga of one injury after the other with a couple lost seasons mixed in.
In 2015 however, the tables have been turned. Heathcott began the year healthy and red-hot, quickly reclaiming his status as a prospect to track, and now through albeit unfortunate circumstances, the same guy who was cut from the Yankees' 40-man roster in the off-season will be in Washington tonight potentially making his MLB debut. Baseball's a funny game like that, but life itself has thrown countless loops at Heathcott. The minor league writers who covered Heathcott along the way are just about universally delighted for him, and no matter what happens to him from this point onward, it will surely be a moving moment when he makes his first big league at bat.
Like many Yankees fans, I first heard about Heathcott back when the Yankees nabbed him in the 2009 draft. Almost instantly, the red flags went up, and it was not difficult to see why that was the case. If you've never read Gene Sapakoff's tremendous 2011 article on Heathcott's past for the The Post and Courier, kindly direct yourself to that link right now. It's a captivating story and it sends chills up my spine to think of crap like that happening to me when I was a mere teenager. Heathcott was raised by his mother and never met his real father, while he had a complicated relationship with his eventual adoptive father. In high school though, his parents' relationship completely fell apart and they went through a very nasty divorce. (One time years later, they even sniped at each other in the comments section of this site. It was surreal.) During one fight, Slade even pulled a shotgun on his father, as he simply could not take it anymore.
In his senior year of high school, life was just about as unpleasant. His mom had moved away from Texarkana to escape his father, but Heathcott was still finishing up school. He suffered a DUI, lived in his truck at times, tore up his knee on the football team, and went through numerous internal struggles. Fortunately, he recovered from his surgery to still captivate baseball scouts who watched him excel that spring. The Yankees thought enough of him to offer a $2.2 million bonus and take him in the first round of the draft, ahead of future big league standouts Nolan Arenado and Jason Kipnis.
During his first spring training, his demons caught up to him, as the Yankees discovered he was an alcoholic. He sought counseling and has found inner peace through religion, thankfully restoring some order to his personal life. But while that was somewhat settled, his skills on the baseball diamond were unable to be seen that often due to chronic injuries. One only needs a glance at his Baseball Prospectus injury history page to grimace:
That's a lot of shoulder and knee surgeries for a guy who hasn't even turned 25 yet. As John Sickels noted over at Minor League Ball earlier today, he has subsequently only played at least 100 games once in his minor league career. The talent was evident when he played, as he hit a combined .270/.345/.398 in 346 games, notching 73 doubles, 18 triples, and 21 homers while stealing 60 bases and crushing the Arizona Fall League with a 192 wRC+ in 2012. He played the game with ferocity, sometimes without enough attention to his health, and that might have cost him in the toll on his body.
At the end of 2014 however, the Yankees were at a crossroads with Heathcott. Previously, they placed him on the 40-man roster to protect him, but they now wanted to use his spot to create an opening. Heathcott had missed all but nine games of Double-A Trenton's season due to chronic knee injuries that required required two surgeries to eventually fix. So they cut him from the 40-man, and while they had plans to re-sign him to a minor league deal, any of the other 29 teams in baseball could have signed the Yankees' former first round stud.
While we don't know for sure if anyone offered him a deal, Heathcott did return to the Yankees with an invitation to spring training. If it was his last shot in pinstripes, he seized the opportunity by batting .333/.450/.545 in the 23 games, winning the 2015 James P. Dawson Award for the best rookie in spring training. More importantly, he was sent to Triple-A Scranton for the first time, where he got off to a hot start and had a .285/.335/.358 triple slash by the time he was called up. The defense was still a pleasure to watch:
There's no getting around the fact that it will suck to not have Jacoby Ellsbury around while he's on the shelf and that his promotion could certainly have come under better circumstances. We don't even know how much he'll play, though a platoon with Chris Young is certainly possible. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel ecstatic for a prospect who has worked his ass off to regain his relevance.
Congrats on the long-awaited call-up, Slade. Here's hoping he makes the Yankees' outfield mix interesting!