The Yankees should fast-track talented left-handed prospect to MLB

New York Yankees, Austin Wells
Feb 20, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees catcher Austin Wells (72) looks on at Yankees Player Development Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While the Yankees are starting to get key pieces back in their outfield, including Harrison Bader, who was the hero over the weekend, they still feel a few pieces away from going on a run. Injuries will continue to rear they’re ugly head as the season progresses, as they’re an ever-present threat that can derail your season at any second. With that being said, the Yankees’ young crop of talented prospects from recent drafts is beginning to blossom, and one of those standouts is University of Arizona product Austin Wells.

Their first-round pick back in the COVID-shortened 2020 MLB Draft, Wells has battled through injuries and defensive inconsistency in his career, but his bat’s never been a question mark. As he continues demolishing the Eastern League with the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate in Somerset, serious conversations should be about getting him to the Bronx this season. With potential versatility in the outfield, Wells could provide a left-handed spark to a lineup lacking the power-centric identity it’s had in recent years.

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Arguably the Best Hitter in the Yankees’ System

Austin Wells took no time to start mashing at one of the most difficult transition periods in a baseball player’s professional career, and that’s the jump to Double-A. In his 60 games with the Somerset Patriots, Wells has clobbered 15 HRs with a .261/.356/.504 slash line. He’s also shown flashes of above-average speed with his seven stolen bases and legging out nine doubles and a triple. While he’s primarily a catcher, Wells’ ability to pull the ball and generate loft allows him to succeed at an extremely high level when it comes to hitting the long ball. He’s averaging 33 HRs per 600 Plate Appearances in the Double-A circuit, doing so without massive whiff issues.

With a 23.2% strikeout rate at the Double-A level, he’s got league-average contact skills to go alongside a swing path that’s tailor-made to generate contact in the air. He averaged a 17.4° Launch Angle in 2022, with his best skill being the ability to generate damage contact at a high frequency. He topped out at 110 MPH last season, which would have ranked in the 63rd Percentile, but it’s his 40% Sweet Spot rate and .454 xwOBACON that reflect on those aforementioned damage contact skills.

Wells pulled over 45% of batted balls last season in Double-A, which allows him to get the most distance on his flyballs, something I’ve discussed heavily in other pieces. To summarize, a pulled barrel allows you to yield the most productive outcomes in baseball, as they typically travel more and go for HRs. Even non-barreled flyballs can travel to the seats in a ballpark like Yankee Stadium, and that’s part of the excitement for Wells. When we evaluate pulled barrels, we also notice that their success remains relatively stable even with changing baseballs:

YearwOBADistance
20231.636380
20221.654380
20211.649382
20201.678387
20191.657387
20181.710384

In Yankee Stadium, those flyballs are going into the seats, and the organization knows this. It’s not a situation where the Yankees are holding Austin Wells back, he’s dealt with injuries that have slowed down his development over the last two seasons, but if he’s able to stay healthy, they can start preparing him for Triple-A. As with Anthony Volpe, they don’t have to keep him there for a significant period of time, as there are legitimate arguments you could make that he’s ready for Major League action right now; it’s a matter of his defense.

With Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka being excellent defensive catchers who work well with the pitching staff, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees will take either of them out of the loop mid-season. His bat could be ready right now, but the next step in his road to the show is finding what positions he can play on baseball’s biggest stage.

How Could the Yankees Get Austin Wells In the Lineup?

One of the biggest criticisms of Austin Wells’ game is his defense at the catcher position, and while he took massive statistical strides in terms of limiting passed balls and scoring well in framing metrics, those concerns still remain. This is largely in part due to the increased running game at the higher levels of professional baseball, and Wells allowed 49 steals at an above 75% success rate, which scouts project would worsen in the Majors. With that being said, I don’t think the Yankees should quit on Wells as a catcher but instead allow him to play other positions in order to get his bat into their lineup.

Left field has been an issue for the Yankees all season, and if they could get Wells comfortable in the outfield in Somerset and Scranton, he could get reps in LF/RF to allow the Yankees to stack more left-handed bats in their lineup while keeping a defensive mastermind like Jose Trevino behind the dish. It would also be unfair to a pitching staff that really enjoys pitching to Trevino and Higashioka to add a new catcher to the mix and replace one of those beloved options, knowing that the defensive falloff could cause serious issues.

jose trevino, yankees
Feb 19, 2023; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees catcher Jose Trevino (39) winds up during spring training practice at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a measly 88 wRC+ since joining the Yankees, Jose Trevino has a 4.0 fWAR which is tied for the 8th best among all catchers in that timeframe, doing so in under 450 Plate Appearances with the team. He’s up to +23 DRS and and +21.3 FRM since 2022, far and away the best at the position defensively, and that’s extremely valuable even on a team lacking offense. The issue isn’t that Jose Trevino isn’t a good hitter, the issue is that the other eight hitters, as a whole, aren’t contributing enough.

As for Higashioka, his defensive numbers are way down from 2022, though it’s been just 15 games, so there could be a serious conversation to be had about him down the road, but if we look at his 2022 season, he was an effective backup for Trevino. A 1.7 fWAR in 83 games and 248 Plate Appearances is solid, and there’s a reason why Gerrit Cole lobbied to have him start even when Gary Sanchez was on the roster. He doesn’t have the value Trevino does on the roster, but he’s still a solid depth catcher for this squad.

Austin Wells has played 35 games in the outfield and 30 at first base in his collegiate career between NCAA baseball and the Cape Cod league, so there is some familiarity there. He even has experience in centerfield, though there’s no chance he ever plays it at the professional level with the options the Yankees could use instead of him defensively there. That being said, if Wells could get reps in the outfield and at first, suddenly he could play his way into a starting role, even if it’s with changing positions. Starting five games a week with one or two games at Catcher, depending on Higashioka/Trevino, would be an excellent way to split up his playing time.

Austin Wells, New York Yankees
Feb 21, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees catcher Austin Wells (62) at Yankees player development complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another massive benefit to calling up Wells would be that he could work alongside Trevino and Higashioka, seeing how they establish relationships with the pitching staff and learning more about framing and defense. He’s an extremely hard worker who’s been told at every level that he won’t be a catcher, and yet he’s continued to make massive strides at the position. Not to say that players aren’t actively trying to improve in areas they’re struggling in, rather that Wells has progressed in spite of constant doubt.

This could be a valuable learning experience for the 23-year-old, and if he continues to make defensive strides, he could end up being the catcher of the future for this squad. At the very least, his bat is going to make him an enticing player for this organization, and I’m certain he’ll hit his way into the lineup regularly. Last season was a complete turnaround for Wells at the position, posting +9.4 Framing Runs between three levels of MiLB, and working alongside the best catching tandem in baseball defensively could go a long way.

Work still needs to be done before the Yankees seriously consider promoting Austin Wells to the Majors, but getting him to Triple-A by the start of the summer (assuming he remains electric) is something they should heavily consider. Moving him around the diamond and getting his bat incorporated into this lineup as soon as possible could give this team anHR threat from the left-handed side with a bright future ahead. While the focus will be on guys like Jasson Dominguez and Spencer Jones, it’s Austin Wells who stands out to me as the guy who could break through first.