This article is part of a regular series in which we profile a specific prospect, detailing his background, strengths, weaknesses, and future.
The Yankees began this season with a collection of talent at Low-A Charleston that rivaled any team in the minors. The River Dogs roster, at one point, included catching prospect Gary Sanchez, outfielder Tyler Austin, newly acquired pitching prospect Jose Campos, third baseman Dante Bichette, Jr., and former first rounder Cito Culver.
But the man tasked with making this lineup tick was centerfielder and leadoff hitter Mason Williams, a 4th round selection by the Yankees out of a Florida high school in 2010. SIgned for $1.45 million to keep him from a commitment to South Carolina, Williams displayed a blend of athleticism and refined hitting ability that stood out at the high school level. The only thing holding Williams back was his slight frame.
Listed at 6'1" 150 lbs., the Yankees decided to keep Williams in extended spring training to begin his first full season in 2011. The move paid off, as WIlliams went on to eventually dominate the New York-Penn League, hitting .349/.395/.468. His aggressive approach at the plate was a little worrisome, but you'd be eager too if you hadn't played in real baseball competition in over a year. The high batting average, however, was aided greatly by a .399 BABIP despite line drive, ground ball and fly ball levels that were consistent with league average.
Moving on to this season, Williams joined his fellow prospects in Charleston to form an impressive prospect lineup. The inevitable regression of BABIP happened, but the good news for Yankees fans is that Williams still managed to hit .304/.359/.489 during his time in the south. Mike Newman of FanGraphs.com saw him earlier this year and noted that he looks like he's put on 20 pounds from his listed weight, which was a much needed addition, and appears to have paid off in the form of some additional power. Williams will never be a big power hitter, but he did show good doubles power, and his isolated power increased from .119 to .185 from 2011 to 2012.
Williams' walk rate in Charleston is still lower than you would hope for out of a true leadoff hitter, but he did maintain it at 6.8% with the jump to full-season ball, so that's a good sign. He also cut his strike out rate from 13.8% to 10.6% - another good indicator. On the bases, Williams used his plus speed to steal 19 bases, but was also caught nine times. At the moment, he's still just a runner, and not yet a true base stealer.
Williams strong play, coupled with the fact that the Yankees held him back in short-season ball the year before, earned him a mid-season promotion to High-A Tampa.
The move has been a struggle for Williams over his first 22 games. The advanced competition, coupled with the pitcher-friendly league, has caused Williams to change his approach at the plate and becoming much more aggressive. His walk rate has been cut in half and his strikeouts have risen. He's also been thrown out in four of his five attempts to steal a base.
The struggles shouldn't be a major concern for the Yankees, as a deterioration of plate discipline for a young player at a new level is fairly routine, especially for a player whose patience at the plate doesn't come naturally. There is hope that by seeing this level of pitching for the remainder of the year, Williams will make an adjustment, but also remember that each game he plays is a new career high, and that young players often struggle towards the end of their first full season.
The true test for Williams will come next season. He could very well begin back in the Florida State League, and unless he proves something in these next two months, he absolutely should, but how he responds to the advanced pitching will go a long way in determining whether or not he becomes a top-of-the-order hitter or a guy for the 8th and 9th spots in the lineup.
Regardless of his bat, Williams should be a contributor at the major league level. His defense doesn't come as naturally as one might hope, but he has the instincts and the tools to become an elite defender in center field. Much like on the bases, he simply needs the refinement that comes with enough time in the minor leagues.
His destination in the Yankees (or someone else's) lineup ultimately comes down to whether he becomes a .280 hitter with a .320 on-base percentage, or a .280 hitter with a .350 on-base percentage. It's the differente between becoming Dewayne Wise or Michael Bourn.
And next year will tell us a lot about which type of player he's going to become.