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The Yankees’ Top 10 Prospects: No. 4 Austin Wells

Austin Wells is hitting his way to New York and improving behind the plate.

Surprise Saguaros v Glendale Desert Dogs
Austin Wells
Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Austin Wells can hit.

There is little point in the paragraphs to follow if we don’t establish that first. If Wells were less of a hitter, the Yankees would not have taken him in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft. He hit in college, he hit on the Cape, he hit in the Arizona Fall League, and he has hit in both of his full seasons in the minors. We are talking about Wells at all because he can hit. But the reason we are talking about him as one of the top prospects in the Yankees’ organization — and someone who can become an impact player in the big leagues — is that it now looks like he can catch.

Information has a way of becoming conventional wisdom in the online scouting world. Someone posts an opinion about a player and people start accepting it as truth as it spreads from platform to platform. In Wells’ case, it’s not like the opinions of his defense were coming out of nowhere. Prior to the 2020 draft, Baseball America revealed that the majority of scouts who had weighed in on Wells did not think he could catch as a professional.

The Yankees disagreed. This is a new era of player development, and the Yankees overhauled their catching instruction prior to the 2020 season. Tanner Swanson brought the one-knee catching style to the MLB staff, but he also became a heavy influence on the coaching of catching prospects, who were being coordinated by newly-hired Aaron Gershenfeld. The Yankees felt Wells was a strong receiver, and after scouting him for years, they had a sense of his work ethic and aptitude. Wells has the distinction of being drafted by the Yankees twice, once out of a Las Vegas high school in the 35th round of 2018, and then again out of the University of Arizona in 2020. It could be argued that the Yankees knew Wells better than anyone.

A year into Wells’ career, the skepticism about his defense hadn’t waned. MLB Pipeline reported that scouts outside the Yankee organization felt that Wells was a shaky receiver who would end up in left field or at first base. Baseball America noted that Wells was considered a below-average defender who had trouble blocking pitches, lacked mobility behind the plate, and had a history of elbow troubles that made his throwing arm “fringy at best.” Depending on the night, you could watch Wells catch and the eye test would corroborate those opinions. Pessimists, like Keith Law of The Athletic, went as far as to say the Yankees were wasting their time with Wells at catcher and should move him out of there immediately.

Publicly, the Yankees’ support of their player didn’t waver. Coaches and staff members lauded his work ethic, emphasized his advancements, and expressed faith that his improvement would continue. Entering the 2022 season, optimistic takes on Wells’ future as a catcher hinged on the potential adoption of the automatic strike zone at the major league level, meaning at some point, framing and receiving would be less important and perhaps that would increase his chances of staying behind the dish. By the end of the season, though, rationalizing Wells as a catcher seemed less necessary.

Because of a significant injury, which was related to a foul tip and sounds too painful to type, Wells caught a combined 65 games at Tampa, Hudson Valley, and Somerset in 2022, with the majority of his games coming with the Patriots at Double-A. That is not a full workload for a starting catcher, but it appears to have been enough for Wells to influence the reviewers into having a rosier outlook on his future.

Surprise Saguaros v Glendale Desert Dogs

It is fair to still question whether or not Wells is a MLB-calber catcher, but some scouts have elevated him up as a defender by a full grade. Now, the word “below” is being dropped from its place preceding “average.”

Baseball America, in the conclusion of Wells’ postseason scouting report, made mediocrity sound sweet by claiming “He has the look of a masher who is passable behind the plate.” Teammates have taken note of Wells’ improvement as a defender and a leader on the field. In an interview with Randy Miller of NJ.com, pitcher Will Warren, himself a top Yankee prospect, said:

“Wells has a hundred percent bought in to being a catcher. He takes full responsibility for whatever happens, no matter if the pitcher messed up or shook him off. You could see his maturity throughout the year calling games. He’s for real behind the plate now.”

In a separate interview with Miller, Wells himself remarked, “It’s been a two-year progression and it feels like every week I’ve gotten better. I’m trying to continue to build off that. I get to build relationships with great pitchers throughout all the levels.”

Because Wells continues to work and improve, the time to make a call on what kind of defensive player he will be is not now. He will be given a chance to prove himself because all he has done is get better in the two full seasons he’s been a Yankee farmhand, and that makes him a very exciting prospect.

If Austin Wells is an average major league catcher someday, then he will be an above-average major league catcher, if that makes sense. Offense at the catching position is not strong in the game right now. In the 2022 season, major league catchers combined for an average slash line of .226/.295/.367 and 89 wRC+. Wells has put up a .270/.388/.493 line in two seasons in the minors and has never had a wRC+ lower than 129 at any stop.

If you recall, Wells can hit, and that’s all he’s done since putting on a Yankee uniform. The scouting reports on Wells at the plate have none of the hesitation you will find in the reports of him behind it.

MLB Pipeline says, “He’s an advanced hitter who recognizes pitches and controls the strike zone while making hard contact to all fields from the left side of the plate. He consistently drives the ball in the air and should hit for average and power and draw plenty of walks.” Baseball America, meanwhile, adds that “he combines excellent knowledge of the strike zone with brute strength and a lofted swing path designed to hit balls hard and in the air.”

This should all be music to the ears of Yankee fans, as it is not difficult to imagine hard-hit fly balls off the bat of Wells landing in the short right-field porch of Yankee Stadium.

Wells will need to be added to the Yankees’ 40-man roster by December of 2023. He could push his way onto it before that time if he continues to show the progress and production he’s demonstrated in his pro career to this point. It is not far-fetched to think Wells could reach the big leagues in 2023, but a more realistic timeline would have him start this season in Somerset and then earn a promotion to Triple-A some time in the middle of the season.

If he finished the season there, he would be in position to take the backup catcher’s job in the Bronx in 2024 and potentially take a significant number of at-bats, because if what we’ve seen from Wells so far is for real, he will give the Yankees the luxury of an increasing rarity. That is a catcher who can deservedly hit in the middle of any lineup.

Other top prospects:

5. Spencer Jones, OF
6. Everson Pereira, OF
7. Trey Sweeney, SS
8. Will Warren, RHP
9. Clayton Beeter, RHP
10. Jhony Brito, RHP
Bonus: Best of the Rest