Yankee prospect Drew Henson is struggling through the Arizona Fall League. He has the lowest average in the league at .186, has 31 strikeouts in 118 at-bats, and has committed 11 errors at third.
Many are reading great volumes of information from this, and into the Yankees' brass traveling to Japan to scout Japanese free agent third baseman Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui. But the truth is that Henson is only 22 years old, split time between baseball and football while at Michigan, and has plenty of time (or at least should be given time) to develop even though he has had 5 minor-league season (4 with the Yankees). The Yankees saw enough in his abilities to draft him in 1998 and then to re-acquire his rights and sign him to a six-year, $17 million contract two years ago. Besides, it is not unheard of for a player to be switched to a new position even at the major-league level if New York signs Matsui.
While it's true that the Yankees have made their fair share of mistakes evaluating talent (read Hideki Irabu and Brien Taylor), they have developed a great deal of major-league talent. The Yankees have also shown no reluctance in separating the chaff (e.g., Hensley Meulens, Ruben Rivera, Ricky Ledee) from the wheat (Williams, Soriano, etc.) when the players approach the major-league level, often times fobbing off the lesser talents to player-hungry organizations. Given the money involved, one might think that the Henson situation gives the Yankees a little less latitude in this area. Keep in mind that the Yankees traded Irabu and his contract for a decent major-league starter in Ted Lilly and two still developing pitchers Jake Westbrook and Christian Parker (at least they are on major-league rosters unlike Irabu, who was released the other day by Texas).
Some say that either the Yankees are fooling themselves or are trying to fool the rest of baseball by saying that they still expect Henson to be their regular third baseman in the near future. However, remaining optimistic is the best way to pass of high-priced inferior talent to another organization if the Yankees truly have given up on Henson. It is also the best way to stand behind a player if they do still believe in him. The bottom line is that trying to read the Yankees' public face on the issue may prove fruitless.
They had expected him to be ready to take over at third base in the Yankees lineup by this year or at least next, but maybe their expectations were unrealistic. Perhaps the two months that he missed last year when he broke his wrist were not taken into account. He did have a great first half in Triple-A this year hitting for power and average, but the second half saw both numbers fall (.240, 18 HR, 65 RBI, 151 strikeouts in 471 at-bats). The pitchers may have adjusted to him. He now has to adjust, which is not the easiest thing when you are the best known minor-leaguer since Michael Jordan.
That said, this year will be critical for Henson. Can he adjust in his second year at Triple-A and show that he can perform at one step below the majors? Or will become a recidivistic minor-leaguer? If the Yankees sign Matsui, can he adjust to life in the American major leagues? If everything goes in the Yankees' favor and the happy problem of having both Matsui and Henson at third occurs, can they shift one to a new position or trade one of them? I have to believe that this whole scenario will play out in the Yankees' favor. This isn't the Devil Rays were talking about here. The Yankees have had a pretty good track record. No one is getting rich betting against them.