In the 35th round of the 2018 draft, the Yankees selected catcher Austin Wells out of high school, but he decided to honor his commitment to the University of Arizona. That turned out to be a really good decision: over the next two seasons (one of which was the truncated 2020 season), he posted a .357/.476/.560 slash line with seven homers, 74 RBI, and 63 walks in only 71 games.
Because of that performance, the Yankees selected him once again, but this time with the 28th overall pick in the 2020 draft. They were forced to go slightly over-slot and give him a $2.5 million signing bonus, but they believe that his bat will make it more than worth it.
2020 Stats (NCAA — Arizona): 15 G, 74 PA, 2 HR, .375/.527/.589
2021 Spring Training Stats: 8 PA, .286/.375/.286, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 K, 1 BB, 8.1 OppQual.
Prospect Ranking (Yankees system): 6 (MLB.com), 12 (FanGraphs)
The best fact that you can say about Wells is that the 21-year-old can hit. In a post from last year’s draft season, Dan Kelly quoted Baseball America as saying that Wells “...has an outstanding approach at the plate with plus raw power, using a simple swing with good bat control” and who “walked more than he struck out, impressive for any hitter but especially for a power hitter.” MLB.com’s Top Prospects scouting profile adds that “he employs a quick yet controlled left-handed stroke, recognizes pitches, manages the strike zone and utilizes the entire field.”
Although Wells has only played in 10 spring training games (and did not come to the plate in two of them), and has yet to appear in a minor league contest, the early results are promising. His bat turned eyes in spring training, with Aaron Boone saying in the spring that he was already having “pretty advanced” conversations about hitting with the coaches. Moreover, in the limited work in games, he faced pitchers well about his expected level — that 8.1 OppQual. metric means that the average pitcher he faced spent the 2019 season in Triple-A — and did not appear to be overmatched.
The question, however, has never been about Wells’s offense — it’s been about his defense. He has battled arm and elbow problems since high school, and he was not exactly a good defender to begin with. The Yankees are optimistic that he can remain behind the plate and have been impressed with the work that he has put in.
Scouts from outside the organization, however, are not nearly as sold, and believe that he can find a new defensive home at first base or in the outfield, like Kyle Schwarber. FanGraphs, in fact, already has him labeled as a right fielder. Even if he is able to remain behind the plate, however, being able to play the outfield on at least a part-time basis might help keep some wear and tear off his body and allow his bat to remain in the lineup on a more consistent basis.
Despite his advanced bat and the confidence the team placed in him this spring, Wells is almost certainly a couple of years away from the big leagues, mostly due to his defense with the tools of ignorance. As a college pick, he’ll probably begin the season in Low-A Tampa, though there’s certainly an outside chance that the Yankees could stick him in High-A Hudson Valley if they’re feeling bold. Regardless, Wells may end up finding himself at a different position if he quickly proves that his bat is ready for the majors.