The Yankees have a lot of outfielders in the high minors who will probably have some kind of MLB career. In book, that list includes, in no particular order: Tyler Austin, Aaron Judge, Slade Heathcott, Ramon Flores, Jake Cave, and Mason Williams. Aaron Judge is still the best prospect of the group. But I think there is a decent chance that Mason Williams is the best player of the group. Here's why:
He's got a pedigree
It wasn't that long ago that Mason Williams was considered a top-top prospect. In 2013, Baseball America ranked him #1 in the Yankee system and #32 in all of baseball. He was coming off an injury-shortened season where he hit .298/.346/.474 between Low-A and High-A as a 20 year-old, showing off a kick-ass 13% strikeout rate and just a .319 BABIP. He was a dynamo on the bases and in the field, and looked like a star.
Of course, Williams has played two full seasons since then, and the results have been horrible. Still, the Yankees have steadily promoted him despite his troubles. He's now just 23 years old at Triple-A, and on the 40-man roster.
He's Hitting Again
I'll spare you the two years of bad statistics and get to the good part: Williams is tearing up the ball in 2015. He hit .317/.407/.375 in Trenton, before being promoted to Scranton, where he's up to .340/.392/.489 in 11 games. Better yet: he's showing his trademark control of the strike zone, with a 12.5% strikeout rate against a 14% walk rate.
Better yet: he's hitting in tough hitting environments. Trenton is a big time pitchers park, and both the Eastern and International leagues favor pitchers quite a bit. His BABIPs aren't out of control either: .365 in Trenton and .325 in Scranton. Small sample warnings aside, Williams' batting line is legit.
He's a Strong Defensive Outfielder
Brett Gardner wasn't always a great hitter. In 2011, Gardner hit just .259/.345/.369, good for a 97 wRC+. Yet, fWAR put him at 5 wins above replacement due to excellent outfield defense. A strong defensive outfielder doesn't need to hit all that much to be valuable.
Williams is a strong defensive outfielder. How strong? We don't really know. He's a 60-70 runner, depending on who you ask, with a good arm. Some people will say he takes poor routes to balls. Others will say he's an above-average center fielder. No one thinks he is anything worse than an average center fielder. Stick him in left or right and you've got a plus defender, not unlike Brett Gardner.
He Never Really Lost His Skills
I know what you're thinking right now: I'm being overly optimistic about a player after just 44 games, and I'm ignoring the previous 245 games between 2013 and 2014, where Williams was terrible. Williams hit .245/.304/.337 in 2013 and .223/.290/.304 in 2014. He was benched a few times for attitude problems, and for the most part fell off the collective prospect radar.
But I don't think Williams just suddenly lost his talent for those year. His strikeout rate stayed firm at around 13%, and his BABIPs were below average. He fought nagging injuries. He had promoted very quickly up until that point, was playing in very unforgiving hitting environments, and was probably a bit unlucky. That's not to excuse his poor performance, but rather to mitigate it. Williams was very bad for 2 years, but the underlying talent that made him a top prospect was still visible, if barely.
He's Got Both a High Ceiling and Floor
Barring some kind of injury, I think Williams is a slam-dunk to have some kind of MLB career. He has speed, puts the ball in play with authority, and can play defense well. Guys like Adam Eaton, Jon Jay and Kevin Pillar are valuable 2ish WAR type players who get a lot of playing time. Williams is a pretty safe (prospect caveats apply) bet to be at least that type of player. He's not made of glass like Heathcott or questionably tweenery like Flores and Austin. In the age of infield shifts and low run scoring, a 13% strikeout rate is a great skill to have, especially since his other skills should raise his BABIP above league average.
But really, Williams could be a lot better. When he's on, he'll hit for power. In Yankee Stadium, he could hit his share of home runs. Pick a comp and dream: Denard Span, Jacoby Ellsbury, Angel Pagan, A.J. Pollock. All of those guys are speedy center fielders with a sub-15% strikeout rate in 2015. All are approximately Williams' size, and all but Ellsbury had higher strikeout rates in the minors than Williams. And better yet: none were full-time MLB players at Williams' age. Only Ellsbury debuted during his age-23 season, and he played just 23 games.
The smart money is still on Aaron Judge to be the better player. But I think Williams could surprise a lot of people. And his MLB call-up could be any day now.