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.

Background

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.

My take

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.