Way back in 2020, the start of the coronavirus pandemic prompted MLB to shorten its draft. Gone was the 40-round slog of old; instead, teams would have just five rounds with which to inject new talent into their organizations. Thanks to draft pick forfeitures related to free agent signings, the Yankees were actually left with just three selections in 2020, three chances to improve the fortunes of the franchise by way of exciting new prospects.
The Yankees saw fit to use the first of those three precious picks on Austin Wells, an almost 21-year-old catcher out of Arizona. It was the second time the Yankees had tried to bring Wells into the fold, in fact, as the club had popped him two years earlier in the 35th round, with Wells ultimately deciding to go to school. It stuck this time, with the Yankees and their 2020 first-rounder agreeing to terms, adding an intriguing power bat to the system.
2021 Minor league stats (Low-A Tampa/High-A Hudson Valley): .264/.390/.476, 16 HR, 76 RBI, 1 SB
2022 Expected minor league level: Double-A Somerset
Major league ETA: 2023
That power is Wells’ calling card, and should lead any list of his strengths. Many dubbed Wells the best power-hitting lefty in his draft class, with a controlled but quick swing that gives him plus raw power. Wells showcased that skill as an amateur prospect, slashing .357/.476/.550 across two collegiate seasons, and earning himself the Cape Cod League prospect of the year award in 2019.
As a hitter, Wells has been about as advertised as a professional. He started his 2021 season with Single-A Tampa and finished up with High-A Hudson Valley, mashing 16 homers in 469 plate appearances to go along with an .867 OPS. He tossed in a red-hot Arizona Fall League to boot, running a 1.034 OPS in 18 games.
Yankees No. 6 prospect Austin Wells demolishes his 16th HR of the year to extend the @HVRenegades lead. pic.twitter.com/JZTNLsrcWw— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 12, 2021
Even a cursory glance at any of Wells’ collegiate or professional lines gives a strong hint at the kind of slugger he could be at the major league level if everything goes right. Wells has consistently turned his plus raw into game power, pairing chunks of homers with quality pitch recognition that manifests itself in bundles of walks and a high OBP. That power and patience mix has thus far more than offset the swing and miss tendencies (he’s run a 25-percent K rate in the minors) that can creep into his game.
The overall offensive package is strong here, but in this case, it has to be. The Yankees drafted Wells as a catcher, and yet from the moment he was selected, questions have abounded regarding his ultimate defensive home. The Yankees have said all the right things about keeping Wells behind the plate for the time being, but scouts remain skeptical Wells will don the tools of ignorance in the bigs, and any move off the plate will raise the bar Wells needs to clear with his bat.
Elbow problems reportedly plagued Wells in high school, prompting concerns about his throwing strength as an amateur prospect. Scouts also gave Wells poor grades for his receiving, an unenviable combination for a young backstop. Some of those concerns were borne out immediately during Wells’ single pro season, with opposing runners swiping a whopping 98 bags off Wells in 2021, at an 87-percent success rate.
Wells has worked tirelessly on his defense, internal evaluators say, and the Yankees themselves claim that they’re happy with the improvement Wells has shown under their instruction. He’ll presumably be given the chance in 2022 to continue developing his defensive chops, though there’s some competition for playing time behind the plate in the upper minors, with 2018 second round pick Josh Breaux slated to receive playing time at catcher for Double-A Somerset this year (if he’s not picked in a still-possible Rule 5 Draft).
All told, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Wells patrolling a corner outfield slot or first base sometime in the coming years. Some evaluators call Wells a 45 runner, with enough athleticism to cut it on the outfield grass. Should Wells move to the outfield, the best-case scenario is probably something like Kyle Schwarber with better defensive chops. That’s a reasonable thing to hope for, a hitter capable of consistently producing .250/.350/.480 lines with enough skill with the glove to avoid embarrassing himself.
As a catcher, it stands to reason that Wells’ ceiling could be higher, with his floor much lower as well. Yankee fans know well just how large the variance can be for an immensely offensively-gifted catcher with defensive flaws, as Gary Sánchez has looked anywhere from world-beater to completely lost during his time in New York. Wells certainly does not have the exact offensive or defensive profile as Sánchez, but the error bars are similarly wide on him if he stays at catcher. His bat could make him a stud if he can cut it on defense, or, he could flounder under the rigorous demands of slugging at the plate and managing a pitching staff behind it.
2022 should be a pivotal year for Wells. If the Yankees are to commit to him long-term as a catcher, this will be the season he has to show the skills necessary to handle the position. Should he come up short in that regard, all eyes will turn to his bat, to see if it can produce enough to warrant playing time in left or at first. Wells has a clear route to the majors thanks to his power and eye, but just how he manages to navigate it remains a question.