The New York Yankees farm system has grown to be one of the strongest in baseball over the last couple of years. Their most congested position is the outfield, and packed in there slowly making a name for himself in the organization is Zack Zehner.
Zehner just finished his third year in the organization, where he had great success with Double-A Trenton all season. The left-fielder is another talented player waiting in line to make his way to the Bronx, but in just his third year his time may not be that far away. The case for Zehner is the same as it was for many in Trenton this season, they could be in Triple-A, but there’s just too much depth above them to move up. So until the Yankees make much needed moves, the players below, like Zehner, can work on grooming themselves even more before hitting the last level.
He showed his promise in Tampa last season, the things he had to get better at were glaring, but he addressed them in the off-season and executed those plans in Trenton. He finished the season with a .260 average, but that is nowhere close to showing the type of season he had. He carried a .280-.290 average for most of the season, but it didn’t hit .280 until May 19 as he hit .323 in April and .281 in May. Though his average dipped in the second half, his slugging went up which was something the organization wanted him to work on heading into the season.
There is still much left to do heading into next season, but before players turn their focus on to 2018, Pinstriped Prospects caught up with Zehner who spoke on his success in 2017, being on a talent-filled Trenton team, and what to look forward to next season as he climbs the ranks in the Yankees’ organization.
Heading into the 2017 season what did the organization want you to work on?
“I think it was clear going last year to this year that they wanted me to drive the ball more, especially with my size, you know. They definitely saw it in there and I saw it in there, potential wise. Last off-season I was working on the mechanics aspect, my swing, and understanding what I have to do to hit more balls in the air. I felt like I hit the ball hard last year, but I wasn’t hitting enough balls, I wasn’t giving myself enough chances to hit home-runs or to drive the ball, so that was the focus from a baseball stand-point. From a physical stand-point it was pretty much get bigger, get stronger, get faster, you know. Keep progressing as an athlete.”
Once you started hitting early in the season, did the focus change at all on what else needed to get better or change?
“Yeah definitely this season I kind of got away from worrying about the mechanics because that was the focus in the off-season. This year it went more towards my approach, I would find myself straying from my approach at times and that’s when I’d find myself in trouble. It wasn’t necessarily a mechanical thing, I thought at times it was more of I wasn’t looking for the right pitch, or I was getting away from what I was good at. So those were more of the adjustments I needed to make throughout the year.”
What was the biggest thing you had to adjust to in Double-A to High-A? How did you counter those challenges?
“The pitching was much better, I think you have guys that can command the ball inside and outside of the zone, guys are trying to deceive you, they’re trying to work pitches that look like strikes then fall off the table. So kind of understanding what the pitcher is trying to do to me and then halfway through the season understanding there’s a report on you, and guys are going to come at you in a different way than they did the first go around. So it was understanding what they’re going to do and how is that going to work with what I’m trying to do. I think it’s just reps, it’s being in those situations more and more. Throughout the season you get better at it, it’s just experience really. You get thrown into a new situation you’ve never seen before, you see a guy, you fail, you succeed, you learn from it and you keep going. I just think there was a learning curve a lot of the time where I just had to push through it if I wasn’t doing well, you learn what you can from it and that was really it for me, it was just focusing on taking the positive out of everything and working it into my approach.”
When you started to cool down, how did you take that mentally? Tell me a little bit on the Thunder coaching staff and how they helped you throughout the season.
“When I started to cool down started telling myself that everything was okay. Not necessarily that something was wrong, but maybe my focus just wasn’t where it needed to be. I’d stop focusing on my approach or change my approach to the game, it’s kind of trusting yourself really is what I had to do when I was struggling this year. The staff was phenomenal this year, we had a lot of goals and we broke a lot of those goals, they were just really professional and a lot of the time it was just letting us play, letting me play, letting guys who are struggling figure it out on their own. Once you progress through the system and get to the big leagues there isn’t going to be someone holding your hand all the time. So, at times they would kind of just let you figure it out and that was kind of a relief because you have coaches that like to jump down your throat, but this coaching staff really treats you like a professional. They trust that you’re gonna figure it out and get the job done, and still help the team even if you’re struggling. It just felt very professional.”
Do you feel like where your game is at now and heading into this off-season that you can attain that higher prospect status that others ahead of you have?
“Yeah of course, you know in the long-term, you really just have to focus on the short-term, but I’m confident that if I do my work this off-season and how I’ve progressed so far that if I keep that progression and keep that fire, there’s no doubt in my mind that I can help this organization out and I can be an impact type of player. It goes back to staying focused on the present and what I’m doing right now and not getting caught up on ‘Are you going to be a guy who’s going to do great things’ or ‘Are you going to be a household name’. I think it’s the opposite, I think you got to stay level-headed and stay focused on the now and all that will take care of itself.”
How well did the staff do of getting everyone their respective amount of reps throughout the season with so much talent? Also what was it like dealing with that as one of the players?
“I think that was the most difficult thing for the coaching staff and I commend them for being able to put out nine guys every day and deal with all of the personalities and everything. Cuz’ I mean yeah you had an all-star squad sitting on the bench most nights too. So we kind of all knew we were there to get better, and you know it was a good team where everyone was pulling for each other so the playing time kind of worked itself out where we I think we were on a schedule of six on, one off or something like that, and guys just kind of knew if someone was hot they were probably playing for a while and if they cooled off y0u’d get more playing time. It was difficult, but the fact that no one really noticed really speaks to the coaching staff because there were no hiccups. I think everyone knew that when you get to Double-A or the upper levels that you know, you’re really close. I don’t think anyone was really worried about getting to Triple-A or anything like that, everyone is just pushing to play their best baseball. So the focus is just when you get that opportunity to play, because if you’re playing well at that level you know you’re going to get an opportunity.”
Now that the season is over, what are some things you’re looking to work on this off-season and get polished seeing how you did in 2017?
“I think the consistency with my swing and keep working towards that cuz’ I think I did a lot of good things offensively this season, now it’s just doing it more often with how I was doing it this season. Defensively I think the biggest thing is versatility, playing corner outfield, I got to work at first base a little this year. So polishing first base, being a competitive first baseman at that level and just giving myself more options, being a good defender in the corners, if I can get faster that’d be great. But with a organization that has so much talent, versatility is key, I think versatility is what separates people. So being able to do what I did at the plate and play good defense and give the teams more options is everything so that’s kind of the focus this off-season is just being as versatile as I can.”
Every outfielder in the Yankees organization right now needs to be thinking about versatility with one spot already being taken by Aaron Judge, and essentially Brett Gardner until he retires most likely. When speaking on getting more work at first Zehner seemed determined on learning the position and how useful it would be to have in his pocket. “With a lot of guys needing playing time it’s what’s going to help me keep my job”. He continued, “No one outright said hey we’re going to put you at first base a lot next year, but it’s good going into Spring Training saying hey, I can play first base as well”.
He’ll also be looking to continue building his power, Zehner hit 11 home-runs this season, which resulted in more strikeouts, but it was a start. “I don’t think I’m like consciously going up there trying to hit home-runs, but I think the intent this year was try to do damage in all counts. I’m trying to look for a pitch that I can handle and it wasn’t necessarily trying to protect the zone or just slap the ball. I was trying to do damage.”
Depending on what the Yankees do with their outfield and first-base depth, expect him to get more time at first should his success carry on. Zehner will most likely start in Double-A next season, but a move to Triple-A should come at some point in the season should all go as planned for the 25 year-old.