Mason Williams: Next Great Yankees Center Fielder?

The New York Yankees received some devastating news this week when their star outfielder Curtis Granderson broke his forearm after being hit by a pitch. Granderson has done an admirable job during his three years in pinstripes. He has so far accumulated 406 hits, 108 home runs and a .247/.337/.506 slash line while playing in New York. The Granderson news got me thinking about the organization’s long term future in the outfield. I’ve been very impressed by the looks I’ve gotten at star prospect Mason Williams. While he is recovering from shoulder surgery and obviously not ready to fill in for Granderson or help the major league team quite yet he does remain the team’s best prospect. I thought we’d take a look at what kind of player Williams can be once he is ready for the big leagues.

The Breakdown

When I saw Williams for the first time in 2011 what immediately stood out was how very skinny he is. His build at the time looked more like “marathon runner” rather than “baseball player.” The upside of this is that Williams had and still has a lot of room to put good weight and muscle on his frame without losing athleticism. In 2012 he did begin this process and bulked up a bit. Williams is a very good athlete and plus runner yet he’s not quite a true “burner.” He is a capable base stealer but is doing so on speed right now rather than technique. He’ll need to continue to improve reading pitchers and getting jumps as he faces more advanced competition. He’s not Billy Hamilton but 20 plus stolen bases is reasonable. Williams will be a contributor but non-elite option on the basepaths for your fantasy squad.

This is a young player who has all the tools to be a plus defensive center fielder but his jumps and routes are unrefined and sloppy at times. He doesn’t always get good breaks on balls in the air but his makeup speed helps him get to balls anyway. I expect in time and with more reps that Williams will become at least an above average defender in center. The throws don’t have great carry and the arm is only passable for a center fielder. Whether Williams ends up in a corner or not with the big league club will likely depend on how long the team commits to Brett Gardner as well as where Slade Heathcott settles in.

The center fielder has a simple, smooth left-handed swing. He does currently suffer from a lot of (correctable) flaws you commonly find in young hitters. Williams generates plus bat speed. His barrel stays in the zone a long time though his bat path can get a little long getting there. He sometimes adds a slight uppercut to his swing, too. I would speculate that is perhaps because he is aware of questions about his power. Another issue he’s dealt with is a tendency to pull his head and front shoulder off the ball prematurely. He needs to keep his weight behind the center line longer and stiffen up his front side. These issues are all fixable and shouldn’t prevent Williams from succeeding in the majors. The most important thing is that he has a nice, loose swing and a natural knack for barreling up the ball. In terms of approach at the plate Williams is not a hacker.  He is someone who will be aggressive early in the count and will from time to time get himself out on bad pitches. These high batting averages in the minors are no fluke, though. I believe Williams will be an above average hitter in the big leagues and someone who can help your team in the AVG category.

Power is a bigger question mark in Williams’ game. A major part of the problem is, again, that he lacks the physical strength to drive baseballs. Quality bat speed and hitting the ball on the screws will always result in souvenirs landing in the bleachers. So we are not talking about a Chone Figgins type hitter even in the worst case scenario. The ultimate power potential here is highly dependent on physical growth and maturity and that’s one of the most difficult things to project in a young player. You’ll find your share of talent evaluators who see a 10-15 home run ceiling and you’ll find others who see 20+ home run power. I have no problem signing on for 15 home runs with his pure hitting ability. If Williams continues to improve his pitch selection and dedicates himself to transforming his body there is definitely the potential for more power here.

The Path to Playing Time

Recovery from shoulder labrum surgery is reportedly going well. In a pitcher an injury to the labrum is always a major concern. It’s a concern with Williams, too, but he’s a position player and the injury was to his non-throwing shoulder. My major worry is the lost development time but it’s possible that there are other lingering effects in the short term.

What will future outfield configurations look like in the Bronx? Curtis Granderson is a free agent after the year. In recent months and years we’ve seen a new found frugality in the Steinbrenner brothers. New York has a lot of older players signed to large, long term contracts. An expected extension for Robinson Cano will eat up a big chunk of their remaining budget, too. So the Yankees will presumably want to begin filtering in younger players onto their roster. Brett Gardner was slated to move to center field this season even before Granderson’s injury. Gardner is entering his 2nd arbitration year and is set for free agency following the 2014 season. At the age of 39 Ichiro Suzuki isn’t a long term option. Potentially all three outfield spots could be up for grabs by 2015.

On the farm the Yankees do have three other legitimate outfield prospects in Tyler Austin, Ravel Santana and Slade Heathcott. Austin is a bat first player who only fits in a corner. Heathcott is a plus runner himself and projects as a good defensive outfielder. Still, he’s had ACL surgery on his left knee among other injury issues and his max effort playing style raises questions about whether he can stay healthy. Santana was very highly regarded in the past but when I saw him this season his tools just weren’t all that loud. One has to wonder if he’s fully recovered from his dramatic ankle injury in 2011. Even if multiple center fielders in the organization arrive in the majors at the same time the team always needs two strong defenders to help cover Yankee Stadium’s left field and Death Valley.

Williams will either return to Tampa or head to double-A Trenton to begin the season if healthy. There are some organizational players the Yankees could turn to first if they suffer further injuries but if Williams is doing well at Double-A he’d likely be on the radar for a call up.

  • On 40 Man Roster: No
  • Options Remaining: 3

What to Expect

Mason Williams is a very talented prospect with standout tools and great athletic ability. I’m comfortably projecting Williams as an above average major league regular with a significant chance to be more than that. With continued refinements to his swing and approach I think we can expect a 280-.300 batting average. Williams has the speed to steal plenty of bases and better technique should give him the chance to snag 20-30 a year. Power is the real question mark. 15 home runs in a season is very reasonable. If you want to be an optimist about his physical development then 20 plus home runs is possible.

  • Mixed League Value: Solid option. An above average outfielder who will hit for AVG while adding some value in every category if he hits in the right part of the order. OF2.
  • AL Only League Value: Strong. A weaker OF1 option.
  • Ottoneu Value: Lack of premium over the fence power hurts him, but well rounded skill set makes him a pretty valuable roster piece.
  • OBP League Value: Williams has typically walked around 6% of the time as a pro. He’ll give you an above average OBP but only because he hits for a high AVG. His value isn’t really any different in leagues that use OBP.

Fangraphs authors Jeff Sullivan and Mike Axisa both recently looked at some of New York’s options to replace their star outfielder.

Fangraphs author Mike Newman ranked Williams the 4th best center field prospect he saw in 2012

Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.

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10 years ago

Your physical description of Mason Williams, the video, and your projected stats all remind me very much of a young Bernie Williams. Hopefully his in-game throwing tecnique is better than Bernie’s.