With spring training now in full swing and a new season upon us, it’s time to bring back our season preview series. This year, we’re doing things a little bit differently. Instead of writing up each and every individual player, we’re doing top-to-bottom organizational previews by position. Not only will this provide a set up for the 2021 MLB season’s storylines, but it’ll also give us a look at what’s in store with the minor leagues returning this summer. Lastly, at the bottom of each post, we will have a depth chart by playing level.
Today, we start at catcher. A fitting place to begin given that catchers have been in camp for a few days already now. Let’s dive in.
Pressure on Gary Sánchez
Gary Sánchez, much to many fans’ chagrin, is the incumbent starting catcher. We’ve gotten a reprieve from the Sánchez discourse for the past few months, but things have kicked back into gear now that spring training has begun. And understandably so given how 2020 ended for the 28 year-old backstop.
2021 feels like a make-or-break season for Sánchez. He’s two years from free agency and has been on a roller coaster since 2018. A hot start would do wonders, wouldn’t it? Sure, there’s always a magnifying glass on his performance, but never quite like this. After all, last year was pretty embarrassing for Sánchez. He didn’t hit during the regular season (.147/.253/.365, 68 wRC+) and was a mess defensively. By season’s end, he was no longer paired with team ace Gerrit Cole and started just two of the team’s seven postseason games. So yeah, a torrid start to 2021 would go a long way for Gary.
The wait is over. And no, I’m not talking about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training today. Rather, the Yankees finally announced the club’s non-roster invitees to big league camp this morning.
The vast majority of these players are no surprise given the trickle of minor league deals during the offseason. However, there are a few players who popped up out of nowhere. For instance, there was no word of Derek Dietrich or Nick Goody joining the Bombers until the team pushed out this announcement. Then there are a couple of prospects, namely last year’s first rounder Austin Wells, who are aboard.
Ample catching is always a requirement early in camp, and the Yankees will have seven more backstops in tow alongside Gary Sánchez and Kyle Higashioka.
Of this subgroup of NRIs, Robinson Chirinos is the only player likely to see any time in New York. Now, don’t expect him to unseat Sánchez or Higashioka out of camp, but Chirinos is the break glass in case of [injury] option. Chirinos, 36, is a lifetime .231/.325/.431 (102 wRC+) hitter in 2,125 big league plate appearances. He’s not much of a defender, but the bat is useful.
Rob Brantly is the other catcher with major league experience here, but the vast majority of that was way back in 2012 and 2013. He’s really just another body in camp. Kellin Deglan and Max McDowell represent the other two minor league depth backstops in camp.
Now, for the fun part. The Yankees invited three noteworthy prospects: Austin Wells, Anthony Siegler, and Josh Breaux. Wells, last year’s first round draft choice, has yet to see any professional action. Siegler (2018 first round) and Breaux (2018 second round) certainly could use the reps after no game action last year too. We’ve yet to see Seigler do much in the minors, but he’s also had a hard time staying healthy. Meanwhile, Breaux broke out in 2019 in Charleston when he posted a 141 wRC+ and 13 homers in just 216 plate appearances.
Before this year, the Yankees hadn’t taken a collegiate bat in the first round since 2015. Austin Wells, this year’s first rounder and 28th overall selection, broke the mold. The last college hitter was Kyle Holder, the 30th selection back in 2015. Of course, Holder was and still is a glove-first prospect. Wells is the polar opposite.
MLB’s draft is always volatile, but it’s especially so after the first handful of picks. So unsurprisingly, Wells comes with warts. The big one: his defense behind the plate. Sure, Wells can really hit and his offensive profile could work elsewhere. For now though, he’s a catcher and the Yankees should exhaust that possibility until it’s no longer feasible. With that, let’s dig deeper into the soon-to-be 21 year-old’s profile.
Wells first caught the Yankees’ eye during his high school years at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. As you likely know by now, the Yankees selected him in the 35th round of the 2018 draft, but didn’t sign him. Don’t let his draft position deceive you: Wells was the 206th ranked draft prospect by Baseball America that year. Further, BA noted that “He would have been significantly higher up the board if healthy”, alluding to an elbow injury that precluded Wells from throwing much in front of scouts for almost a year.
Instead of going pro, the six-foot-one, 200 pound catcher followed his parents footsteps and went to Arizona University. As a freshman, the catcher started all 56 team games and hit .353/.462/.552, walked more than he struck out, and earned PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors.
Wells didn’t miss a beat after his freshman season ended. He transitioned from metal to wood bats at the Cape Cod League and continued to turn heads. At the season’s conclusion, the catcher was awarded the league’s Outstanding Prospect award.
Even though COVID-19 wrecked 2020 baseball, Wells made the most of his limited sophomore season. In 13 games, Wells added more power and more walks, all the while striking out less often than taking a free pass. He posted an impressive .354/.516/.604 triple-slash in the curtailed season.
What the scouts say
Wells is unquestionably a bat-first prospect. Each and every publication basically says a variation of this: Wells can really hit, but where will he fit defensively?
Baseball America boasted Wells’s outstanding approach and plus raw power, but knocked his ability to receive. The Athletic’s Keith Law stated that he can hit well to all fields (even though he’s pull oriented), but also called him a below-average defender. Further, Law relayed that scouts don’t think he has any chance to remain behind the dish. MLB Pipeline praised his power to all fields, good timing, and simplicity at the plate but has concerns about his inconsistent throwing. As we learned in our draft preview, Wells has a history of arm trouble.
On the bright side, it sounds like Wells could play elsewhere in the field competently. We often see bat-first catchers switch to first base or designated hitter. However, Wells actually may not be limited to those spots thanks to his athleticism. Other possibilities include either of the outfield corners. Still, those positions are less forgiving offensively than catcher, so he’ll really need to live up to his offensive billing to make any of those positions work.
Of course, the Yankees should and will give him every opportunity to catch. In an interview with the YES Network’s Jack Curry, Yankees’ Director of Domestic Amateur Scouting Damon Oppenheimer had this to say about Wells’s future in the field:
“He can probably play another position besides catcher…but he’s really turning himself into a good catcher and we had our catching people look at him and really spend a lot of time on it. Player development looked at a lot of video and they just think they can clean it up and make him tremendous behind the plate.”
Look, nobody expected Opponheimer or the Yankees to concede that its prized draftee probably can’t catch. It’s still the right approach to work with him and give him every chance to catch, of course. Wells will be most valuable if he can stick behind the plate.
Will he sign?
The 28th pick’s slot value is $2,493,000, though all but $100,000 of whatever bonus Wells signs for will be deferred for a couple of years. The draft-eligible sophomore could gamble and return to Tuscon, but all indications are that he’s ready to sign. I don’t anticipate his bonus varying much from the allotment.
The Yankees have made a habit of whiffing on first rounders, so I have to admit I’m typically skeptical of the player the team chooses first — especially when drafting a bat-first prospect whose defensive future is uncertain. I can’t say I was thrilled to find this out about him either, but hey, I guess he’ll fit in with his new organization.
On the bright side, the Wells selection isn’t necessarily a head-scratcher like we’ve come accustomed to. Unlike Anthony Seigler or Cito Culver, the fact that Wells wasn’t a surprise is a positive. Wells was mocked to the Yankees by various sites and was a strong collegiate performer.
Left-handed power and Yankee Stadium go hand in hand, so it’s easy to dream on Wells’s offensive future. If you’re optimistic, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope he sticks behind the plate too. Given everything we’ve read, I can’t help but be doubtful, but there is a reason for some hope in catching guru Tanner Swanson. Maybe Swanson’s wit will rub off on the entire organization and benefit Wells. Should that be the case, Wells could blossom into quite the prospect.
After failing to sign Austin Wells out of high school in 2018, the Yankees selected the draft-eligible sophomore with tonight’s first round pick. He’s a lefty-swinging catcher with plenty of power, though there are concerns about his glovework. Here’s what I wrote for Wells’ prospect capsule in our draft preview yesterday:
The Yankees drafted Wells just two years ago out of high school, so there’s clearly some affinity here. He’s a lefty-swinging catcher with lots of power, though there is some uncertainty about his ability to remain behind the plate long-term. Nonetheless, it seems like his power will be able to play at another position should he prove unable to last as a catcher.
There’s quite a bit of skepticism about Wells’ receiving, though one can’t help but wonder if that’s something Tanner Swanson and the organization can fix. On the other hand, arm strength seems to be a problem. Baseball America notes that he has a record of elbow issues dating back to high school while Eric Longenhagen’s brief report states that Wells had shoulder surgery in the past.
There were two players mocked to the Yankees at various points who didn’t last until the 28th pick. Cleveland drafted Carson Tucker with the 23rd pick, Atlanta took Jared Shuster at 25.