This has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season for Yankees first basemen.
In retrospect, losing Greg Bird to a season-ending labrum tear in February was a sign of things to come. Mark Teixeira has been awful and hurt and then awful again. Dustin Ackley was mostly awful before he suffered a season-ending labrum tear of his own. Chris Parmelee made a cameo appearance before being lost to a hamstring injury. Ike Davis was....well, he was Ike Davis.
The blackhole grew large enough that Rob Refsnyder served (admirably) as an interim-first baseman. Anything that could have gone wrong with first base has gone wrong.
It’s easy enough to talk at length about the Yankees’ first base situation, but there is a small bright spot this year. After the year he’s having, Tyler Austin has become a viable, living, breathing first baseman.
Yankees fans remember Austin as the 13th round draft pick in 2010 who quickly rose his prospect stock. Prior to the 2013 season, he cracked both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s top 100 lists, at 77 and 75, respectively. He split time between the outfield and corner infield positions.
Then the injuries came. A wrist injury in 2013 sidelined him for a little over two months and sapped him of crucial development time. A myriad of other injuries and setbacks resulted in Austin opening the 2016 season with the Double-A Trenton Thunder, his fourth year at the affiliate.
Yet as the first basemen fell in rapid succession, Austin found himself promoted to Triple-A on June 4th. Through 35 games in Scranton, he’s batted a monster .305/.383/.655 (195 wRC+). Those outrageous power numbers come courtesy of 10 home runs in a little over a month.
Austin’s second look at Triple-A pitching has been a remarkable success so far. Pitchers are struggling to find ways to get him out, which is exactly what you want to see. What’s even better is that Austin has played 24 of his 35 games at first base. It looks like first is becoming his primary position.
Is this recent offense outbreak for real? It’s difficult to tell. At some point his slugging numbers will regress. That’s inevitable.
Also, remember he only earned this promotion after Parmelee was called up to the big leagues. Austin wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off of the ball in Double-A. He was hitting .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) for the Trenton Thunder. His true talent is probably somewhere in between, as a first baseman/part-time corner outfielder who will hit for power and strike out about 20% of the time. That’s not a bad player to have. Austin isn’t a star in the making, but he should be able to hold his own at the major league level.
So at what point does Austin get the call? There’s a case to be made for a September call-up. He would have to be re-added to the 40-man roster, of course. He was designated for assignment last September.
If he doesn’t get a cup of coffee when rosters expand, expect him to be added to the 40-man roster in the offseason, when he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. With Bird returning from injury, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Austin getting a long look in spring training. He very well could be up with the Yankees early in 2017.
First base has been a disaster for the Yankees in 2016, but there’s at least some hope for the future. Austin’s prospect stock has recovered nicely and he figures to play a role for the Yankees moving forward. After all of the injuries and missed development time, that’s about as good of an outcome as you can expect. Fans looking for homegrown solutions might soon be rewarded for their patience.