Prospects On Deck: OF Aaron Judge – Yankees
The Future of the Yankee Outfield
The Yankees have recently made news by calling up outfielder and former notable prospect Slade Heathcott, who was a late first round pick in 2009 out of Texas High School. Heathcott may have hit his first big league HR in the big leagues on Monday, but does not project to be an impact player for the Yankees, as he has only produced wRc+ of 104 and 103 in his 2013 and 2015 minor league seasons, respectively (he missed most of the 2014 season, and played very poorly when healthy).
Therefore, he was only 4 and 3 percent better than league average in the minors in his two most recent seasons in AA and AAA, which is not indicative of a prospect and potential impact big leaguer, considering most hyped up prospects are much better than league average in the minors.
However, in the Yankees’ upper minors, it appears that they may have a much better prospect in 23 year old Aaron Judge. Despite not being suited for centerfield in the bigs (Heathcott was called up to play centerfield to replace Jacoby Ellsbury, who recently went down with an injury), the Yankees’ 32nd overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Fresno State is hitting .288/.356/.469/.824 with a 134 wRc+ so far in 2015 in his first taste of Double A ball.
Aaron Judge happens to possess a very imposing physical frame (he is listed at 6’7” and 275 pounds), but despite his size, he is considered a solid athlete, and he profiles as a strong right fielder where he has average speed and a very strong arm. Judge happens to bare a striking resemblance to NBA star Blake Griffin (Judge is only three inches shorter than Blake), which may be what he is most well- known for amongst some Yankee fans who haven’t closely followed the minor leagues lately. However, if Judge can keep hitting like he has since being drafted, that may soon very well change.
Coming into the 2013 MLB draft, most draft gurus described Judge as a hit- or- miss prospect; if his in- game power ever lived up to his raw power, which was always on full display during batting practice, he had the potential to be an impact major leaguer. However, many questions lingered about Judge and his somewhat odd profile, as many scouts had rarely seen such a large outfielder with his athleticism. There were also questions about whether professional pitchers would exploit the large strike zone created by his height.
Despite his solid all- around tools, including average speed for an outfielder, along with his strong Junior season at Fresno State where he finally showed his in- game power by hitting 12 HRs in 246 PAs (he only hit 6 HRs combined in his previous two college seasons), he slipped to the end of the Compensatory Round, where the Yankees nabbed him at pick #32.
However, due to nagging injuries, he failed to appear in a minor league game in 2013 after being drafted. Entering the 2014 season, Aaron Judge was a mystery prospect; one with great potential who also had several question marks that needed to be answered.
Aaron Judge started the 2014 minor league season in Charleston, the Yankees’ full season A-ball affiliate. In 65 games and 278 PAs, Judge definitely put himself on the prospect map. He slashed .333/.428/.530/.958 with 9 HRs and an impressive 39/59 BB/K ratio. He showed impressive plate discipline (14.0% BB%) as well as power (.197 ISO) at the level, and clearly earned a midseason promotion to High A- Ball.
In the Florida State League, Judge’s stats decreased slightly from their amazing Charleston levels, but remained impressive in 285 PAs, where he slashed .283/.411/.442/.853 with 8 HRs and a 50/72 BB/K ratio. Despite his K% increasing to 25.3%, his BB% also increased to 17.5%, which clearly demonstrated his strong plate discipline.
On the season, split between two levels, Judge hit .308/.419/.486/.905 with 17 HRs and an 89/131 BB/K ratio in 563 PAs. In the 2014/2015 offseason, Judge was a consensus Top 100 prospect, often appearing around the middle (ranked from 45-75, roughly) on most lists. Still only 22, things were certainly looking up for Judge.
In 2015, Aaron Judge made the big jump to Double A, and picked up almost right where he left off, with a .288/.356/.469/.824 slash line so far to go along with 6 HRs and a 16/47 K/BB ratio in 180 PAs so far. Despite his impressive .181 ISO (isolated power) being in line with his 2014 stats, his BB% has decreased to 8.9%, while his K% has held somewhat steady at 26.1% so far.
The better pitchers in Double A have clearly had an effect on his stats, as he has been walking much less this season (down from 17.5% in the FSL in the second half of last season). However, BB rates often decrease as a player moves up the minor league ladder and faces pitchers with better control, and his current BB% is still solid for a prospect with Judge’s power.
Despite slowing down in some areas (as was to be expected after the jump to Double A), Judge has still produced very impressive statistics so far this season, as evidenced by his 134 wRc+, 34 points above league average. Now in the upper minors, Judge appears ready to make a big league contribution by 2016 if all continues to go well.
Aaron Judge has done nothing but hit since being drafted by the Yankees back in 2013. Having just turned 23 in April, the Yankees’ front office is almost certainly considering him as a potential big piece in their future. Carlos Beltran has been mostly struggling with the bat as their right fielder since he signed before the 2014 offseason, and Judge looks like the best candidate to take his place.
Despite looking more like an NBA forward than an MLB outfielder, Judge projects to be an improvement upon Beltran on both sides of the ball, as he is an above average defensive right fielder with decent speed and a very strong arm.He should be in the Top 50 in almost all midseason prospect lists, with the potential to even scratch the Top 25.
A future Yankee outfield of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Judge could be a very productive one for the Yankees, and could happen as soon as early 2016. Judge should receive a midseason promotion to Triple A, and if he performs as expected there, he will be on the cusp of the major leagues.
The Yankees’ front office has received plenty of criticism due to poor drafts in recent years, but that may change soon. After a 2 hit game with a HR on Monday, some may anoint Slade Heathcott as part of the future in the outfield for the Yankees. However, Heathcott has mostly under performed in the minor leagues, and I do not believe he will continue to hit productively in the majors over a large sample size.
On the other hand, Aaron Judge has done nothing but hit, and seems like a much better bet to become possibly the best internally drafted and developed hitter the Yankees have produced in a while. Of course, there is always risk that his stats won’t translate to the majors, as his high K% and decreasing BB% are definitely things to keep an eye on. But all prospects have inherent risk until they perform in the majors, and Judge appears to be one of the best outfield prospects in baseball right now.