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Larger-than-life Aaron Judge leads Yankees' minor league OF resurgence

5/19/2015
Aaron Judge has been impressive on the field and engaging off it, members of the Yankees say. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The top prospect in the New York Yankees' system, an outfielder with a chance to help this year, is built like NFL sack master J.J. Watt. At 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, Aaron Judge is 2 inches taller and just 14 pounds lighter than Watt’s listed measurements with the Houston Texans.

Judge, 23, is dominating at Double-A Trenton to the point that the Yankees might soon promote him to Triple-A Scranton. From there, with the Yankees’ lineup leaning left, the right-handed Judge would be just an injury away from helping this year’s pennant run.

At the least, if Judge, the 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, continues to mash the ball, he is positioning himself to start 2016 in pinstripes.

In Judge’s first 34 games of 2015, he hit .314 with six homers and 21 RBIs in 140 at-bats in Double-A. His OPS was .892. This past weekend, he had a 14-game hit streak ended.

“When you look at him, you say, ‘Wow, that is what a big leaguer looks like,’” said former Yankees shortstop Bobby Meacham, who manages the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate in the Trenton Thunder's division.

From the opposing dugout, Meacham notices what nearly anyone who talks to Judge picks up: The big man tries to master the little things.

Meacham sees Judge position himself in the outfield, interacting respectfully with umpires and lifting teammates up emotionally, though he surely could do it physically, if he chose to.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman, not one to heap praise unless it is warranted, said Judge’s “makeup is off the charts.”

“If he keeps doing this, then he is just going to force his way up,” Cashman said of Judge's Triple-A trajectory. “It is not an if, it is a when.”

Judge, clearly the team’s top prospect, is leading a resurgence of outfielders in the Yankees’ system. While Judge is excelling at Double-A, Slade Heathcott, a first-round pick in 2009 and one of the franchise’s more fascinating stories, is resurrecting his career at Triple-A Scranton. After being removed from the Yankees' 40-man roster this winter, Heathcott has turned himself into a prospect again.

“He is a legitimate option for us at the major league level,” Cashman said.

A fellow Scranton outfielder, Ramon Flores, who is on the 40-man, is in position for a call-up too. So is Ben Gamel, also at Scranton, who was called the most improved player in the system by Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo.

At Double-A, along with Judge, the Yankees have Mason Williams, who has a great glove and is starting to hit a little more, though his ceiling might be as fourth outfielder. Then there's Jake Cave, who Judge says, “goes 150 percent, and you just have to love that as a teammate.”

“I think all these guys are going to be in the big leagues, and I think they are going to carve themselves out careers,” Cashman said. “It is yet to be determined what kind of careers they are going to be.”

The apparent outfield surplus is quite a development for an organization that has only produced Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano as everyday Yankees position players since the Core Four began arriving in the early '90s.

ZIG-ZAGGING HIS WAY TO THE TOP

The Yankees have loved Heathcott’s ability since drafting him 29th overall in '09. They did so despite Heathcott's alcohol-dependency issues and the fact that he once reportedly turned a gun on his stepfather -- and had a gun turned on him in high school. The talent was too enticing.

As a pro, Heathcott has had injury after injury, which has allowed him to play more than 100 games just once in his previous six years.

His latest knee injury limited him to just nine games in 2014, which got him kicked off the 40-man. The setbacks didn’t always sit well with Heathcott.

But now, with a new attitude spurred by a self-help audiobook, Heathcott hit .288 in his first 160 Triple-A at-bats this season. The reports up the chain to Cashman are going in the right direction.

“Everything I’m hearing is from people who maybe complained about him in the past,” Cashman said. “Complained about how he went about his business and making excuses and finger-pointing and the frustrations that he has gone through, health-wise and everything else. Those same people, from teammates to coaches to managers to front office people, anyone who has been around him, say he is completely different.”

Heathcott, 24, credits the book, “How to Stay Motivated: Developing Qualities of Success” by the late Zig Ziglar.

“It is a book I think I’ve listened to 16 or 17 times through now,” Heathcott said. “It is just little things the book talked about really clicked. It started changing things. Now, it is just a constant of being consistent off the field, as well.”

Heathcott and his wife, Jessica, had their first child, Kysen, three months ago.

“I realized I’m responsible for that human being,” Heathcott said. “I’m responsible for how he affects the world. I’ve been a negative influence enough in my life. I decided that I was done with it. I wanted to be a positive influence. I want to make a positive impact and make a difference.”

'HELLO, I’M AARON'

Judge, who was adopted on his second day of life, grew up in Linden, California, about two hours east of San Francisco.

From his parents, retired school teachers Wayne and Patty, Judge learned to be respectful.

For a guy whose appearance and ability demand so much attention, Judge is always deferring to others. In an interview for this story, he talked most about his “great teammates and great coaches.” About himself, he just said he needs to improve in all areas.

Judge’s almost too-good-to-be-true demeanor doesn’t necessarily foretell big league success, even if former big leaguers project it. In the spring, Reggie Jackson compared Judge to Dave Winfield, while adding a few more Hall of Famers to the mix.

"When you look at him, you say, 'Wow, that is what a big leaguer looks like.'"

Bobby Meacham, manager of the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats and former Yankees shortstop, on Aaron Judge

"He's got power like Stargell, McCovey," Jackson told ESPN New York. "Opposite-field power, which is the best power you can have. That allows you to wait on the ball. He has power like a guy from the '60s and '70s."

Former All-Star catcher Lance Parrish, who manages the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, brought up another name from the past.

“He’s an imposing figure when he gets up to the plate, just like Frank Howard was,” Parrish said. “Darryl Strawberry was a big guy, though he was left-handed. As far as guys from the right side, Dave Winfield was that kind of guy. A big guy who could drive the ball with incredible power.

“It is one thing to hit the ball a long way, but it is another thing to hit for average. He is doing both this year. Like I said, he looks like the real deal. You never really know until they get up there.”

You certainly don’t, but you can sense if a hyped player will be overwhelmed. Judge doesn’t act like he will be.

Adam Giardino has been in minor league baseball for six years. The past three, he has been with Double-A Trenton in media relations and broadcasting. Not once has a player initiated introductions to Giardino until this spring, when Thunder players were busy taking their headshot photos.

“Hello, I’m Aaron,” Judge said.

It was a simple, polite gesture, but it says a lot about how Judge was raised. Sooner rather than later, Judge might be introducing himself in the Bronx.