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Yankees' minor-league system beginning to pay dividends

New York Yankees leftfielder Brett Gardner, left, is

New York Yankees leftfielder Brett Gardner, left, is congratulated by centerfielder Slade Heathcott and shortstop Didi Gregorius after his three-run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on Monday, May 25, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was just past 10 a.m. and the clubhouse still was mostly empty, but one player had his suitcase stretched open on the floor in front of his locker next to the doors. Slade Heathcott added a few items to take on a trip with the team that owns the biggest brand name in the game.

Here he was at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, a 24-year-old centerfielder starting his eighth day in the majors, standing in a room that once housed the Yankees' homegrown Core Four of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.

"It's been surreal at times," Heathcott said. "I dreamed of being in the big leagues, being here. After I signed and started learning about the background and the history a little bit more, guys like Jeter and Mo and Pettitte, Jorge, guys like that who have come through this locker room and the Yankees' system, it makes you respect being here a lot more."

That system came under fire in recent years for a lack of homegrown help to summon to the Bronx. But Heathcott, a 2009 first-round pick, arrived from Triple-A on May 20 and provided a .353 boost in place of the injured Jacoby Ellsbury before going on the DL himself Saturday with a quadriceps strain. Jacob Lindgren, a 22-year-old lefty reliever, arrived last Sunday, less than a year after being drafted in the second round. And there's more to come this year or next.

They will have to prove themselves, but the Yankees finally appear to have some legitimate prospects.

"I think the system has been deep, but I think it's been at the lower levels," Joe Girardi said. "Well, these lower-level kids are now getting to the upper levels. And that's why I think you'll start to see contributions from them."

So the wait is on for kids such as 21-year-old righthanded starter Luis Severino at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and 23-year-old rightfielder Aaron Judge at Double-A Trenton. They are the Yankees' top two prospects and two of the top 55 in the game, according to Baseball America.

Severino, who signed in 2012 as an international free agent, went 2-2 with a 3.32 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 38 innings in eight starts for Trenton before his promotion this past week.

"He has a pretty live arm," said Lindgren, his Trenton teammate last season.

Judge, an athletic 6-7, 275-pounder who was a 2013 first-round selection, entered the weekend at .295 with seven homers and 27 RBIs.

"Very, very high ceiling," Chase Headley said, having seen him in spring training. "I thought he was a really good hitter, not just a power hitter."

Rob Refsnyder, taken in the fifth round in 2012, is another on the watch list. The outfielder-turned-second baseman stood at .286 through Friday's play. He had 11 errors, but seven occurred in his first 19 games.

"He's steadily improving every day," Heathcott said.

Third baseman Eric Jagielo, another 2013 first-rounder who was at .292 with nine homers and 32 RBIs, and first baseman Greg Bird, out lately with a shoulder injury, are two names Girardi mentioned who are at Trenton. Heathcott also mentioned top catching prospect Gary Sanchez and outfielder Jake Cave at Double-A and outfielder Mason Williams at Triple-A, among others.

"There's a ton of talent down there," Heathcott said.

Heathcott took the long way to the Bronx, slowed by shoulder and knee injuries. The Yankees non-tendered him after last season before bringing him back on a minor-league deal. In the past, he had to adjust his attitude and put an alcohol issue behind him. Heathcott said he no longer attends AA meetings.

"I've made a lot of mistakes in my past," said Heathcott, who was replaced on the roster by outfielder Ramon Flores on Saturday. "I have attended AA meetings on the request of the Yankees' behalf. You know, we're all young. Whether we're 20 or whether we're 40, we make mistakes and we learn from them.

"There were some mistakes that I've learned from in my past to realize that there's a lot more in life than the party. It's just something I had to mature from."

Lindgren took his sharp slider to the bullpen as a Mississippi State junior, then became the first Yankee to debut within one year of being drafted since Deion Sanders in 1989. Lindgren opened with two scoreless innings against Kansas City on Monday before yielding two runs in one inning in Oakland Friday night. He admits his command still needs some polish but would love to shine it in the majors.

"You appreciate this more because all your hard work paid off," Lindgren said. "But it's not over. They say, 'Once you make it up, it's hard to stay up.' So that's why I want to continue to prove myself and prove what I can do."


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