April 2, 2013, was one of those picture-perfect days that reminds all better weather is certainly on its way in the Mid-Atlantic.
The Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of the Yankees, were conducting their annual Media Day. Drawing the most attention were three players who made up what was being touted as, “This Season’s Best Minor League Outfield.” Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores posed for plenty of pictures and reporters penned more than a dozen stories.
At the time, many wondered if all three might make their way to Triple-A Scranton later in 2014 and The Bronx by the start of the 2015 season. It was a realistic thought at the time.
But, as we all know, two of the three ran into major issues. Austin had a wrist injury he hid for a month on 2013. It robbed him of his power stroke, something that returned finally in the second half of the 2014 season. Heathcott has had injuries and surgeries and is no longer on the Yankees 40-man roster, appearing in just nine games last season.
Flores, on the other hand, had a solid season on a 2013 Trenton team that surprised many by winning the Eastern League Championship. Mostly leading off, he hit .260 (139-for-540), with 25 doubles, six triples, six home runs and 55 RBIs, striking out just 85 times. His work in the outfield was also more than passable.
“Ramon played very well for us that season,” said Tony Franklin, who managed Flores in 2013. “He has a lot of good tools, and he’s learning how to put them together.”
The 22-year-old native of Barinas, Venezuela, has always been something of a “stealth” prospect, an under-the-radar guy with mixed scouting reports. Will his power develop? Is he an everyday player, or have a ceiling as a reserve?
“I just play within myself,” Flores said. “I know what I do well, and what I have to work on. One thing I am very comfortable with is being selective at the plate.”
Flores, whose advanced approach at the plate from the left side has resulted in a walk rate of 11.4 percent, appeared for Triple-A Scranton before his more-heralded outfield mates even came close. The International League’s youngest player in 2014, he was star-crossed himself.
A broken ankle limited him to 63 games (in addition to five games in the Gulf Coast League), in which he batted .247 (58-for-235)., He did hit a career-high seven home runs and had 17 doubles while switching between the outfield and first base.
Power is always the last tool to come and, in Flores’ case, the difference in his becoming a regular or a fourth outfielder. Some feel that his power will never develop, especially if the 5-10, 155-pound Flores is done maturing physically. With quick wrists, he has given glimpses of what potential power there is with some impressive home runs.
Ironically, the outfield many thought was so impressive in Trenton on 2013 will likely be back together in Scranton this season. Heathcott is the oldest of the three, finally reaching Triple-A at 24. Austin will play the 2015 season at 23, turning 24 in September, while Flores, who turns 23 March 26, is the youngest.
All three have something to prove. Has Heathcott’s game matured, and will he hit consistently after missing so much time? Will Austin continue to show the kind of power that has been expected of him?
As for Flores, his assignment is to build on what he did in 63 games at Triple-A in 2014. A strong start, with about 10 home runs mixed in, could put him in line for a call-up to The Bronx. He’s the most-known quantity of the group.
Looking back on that beautiful day in April almost two years ago, that wasn’t the way it was predicted at all.