Yankees prospect Zack Zehner was originally selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, but chose not to sign and returned to college at California Polytechnic. The Bombers selected him a year later in the 18th round of the 2015 draft and signed him for slot money.
Zehner made his pro-debut as a 22-year old for Staten Island in the New York Penn League in 2015. He slashed .232/.309/.351 with five homers and 31 RBI in 63 games that summer.
As an advanced college bat, the Yankees skipped Zehner over Low-A and placed him at High-A Tampa to open the 2016 season. Zehner showed advanced pitch recognition and a good understanding of the strike zone; he walked 63 times to go along with 107 hits in 109 games at the level. The 23-year old spent all season with Tampa an impressive .278/.384/.375 with three homers and 35 RBI while playing both corner outfield spots on an everyday basis.
The Yankees had told Zehner that in a system packed to the gills with outfield talent, he would have to hit for more power as a corner outfielder if he had hopes of one day making it to the big leagues. Zehner made adjustments in his approach in 2017 that may have caused his average to dip a bit, but his power output more than doubles his previous career output in his first season at Double-A Trenton. The 24-year old Zehner proved to be a model of consistency playing in 128 games on a roster that saw lots of turnover and injury throughout the season. Zehner slashed .260/.355/.408 with 11 homers, 23 doubles, 68 RBI and a career-high 64 walks; he was named an Eastern League all-star and took home the games MVP award in July.
“The kid can just flat out hit,” said one scout from an AL West club told Pinstriped Prospects last spring. “His approach and path to the ball is about as good as anybody else on this Trenton team. The organization seems to have a lot of these outfield guys who all pretty much have the same tools and ceiling as a fourth outfielder kind of player.”
Here is what our friends at 2080 Baseball had to say about Zehner:
“Taken in the 18th round of the 2015 MLB Draft out of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Zehner has developed into a tough at-bat, with a maturing approach at added power the plate this year. Although the strikeouts are up to 25.5% vs. 19.9% last year, he has shown consistent ability to work deep into counts and draw plenty of walks (13.4% walk rate). His swing is timed-up well for his size and well-proportioned 6’4” frame, with a quiet setup and wide stance. He has an up-the-middle approach, driving the ball into both gaps with regular hard contact. Zehner is also developing more loft and backspin carry this year and seeing his fringy raw power manifest in-game, with 11 home runs among his 36 extra-base hits this year after just three home runs at Tampa in 2016, while slashing .264/.361/.414. Even though the swing and miss is still in his game, and his cuts can look grooved at times with limited barrel control, he’s showing good knowledge of the zone and isn’t prone to expand it. He showing the patience to look for the best pitch to drive hard, and he’ll swing aggressively when he sees it, and take the walk if not. He can open his front shoulder at times, which hurts his plate coverage low and away, and also contribute to the strikeout rate, but overall, it’s an average hit tool. As he develops a more disciplined approach and improved pitch recognition skills, especially with two strikes (where he could stand to shorten up the swing to get the ball in play), he should settle in at above-average on-base utility with average game pop.
On defense, Zehner shows reads and jumps that play average, and he takes above-average routes with above-average speed on balls hit to the wall, and solid reads on liners hit in front of him. He has athletic instincts and overall above-average range. His arm shows good carry with accuracy and is also average. On the bases, he’s got above-average speed, with 4.16-4.24 home-to-first times, and while he can be an occasional threat to steal a bag, the speed plays best covering ground when underway in the outfield.
He doesn’t have a true standout tool, but with his ability to get on base and hit with some pop, and with average defense at the corners, he has a floor of a Role 40 OF-5 fourth outfielder, with some future potential to deploy to center field in a pinch thanks to his athleticism and range in the field. His ceiling is that of a Role 50 left fielder, where the hit tool, arm, and overall defensive profile are best suited for everyday duty.”
After a big 2017 in Trenton, Zehner proved he could thrive in the upper levels. I believe Zehner could play every day in Triple-A, and I think he will get that opportunity for sure in 2018. I think where he starts will depend heavily on how the Yankees big league roster shakes out and the acquisitions that are sure to be made between now and opening day.