NEW YORK — The New York Yankees haven’t called up top catching prospect Austin Wells, but recently, the 24-year-old caught ace Gerrit Cole. He also squatted behind the plate and corralled Clay Holmes’ devastating sinker and framed Michael King’s sweeping slider.
Hours before games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Wells will often go into the bullpen, where coaches will fire up a high-tech pitching machine that doesn’t just mimic the velocity, pitches and release point of actual pitchers, but also projects their likenesses on a screen, as if they were delivering each pitch. So, in addition to preparing to catch whoever’s on schedule to pitch that night’s game, he’ll also sneak in work receiving pitches from virtual versions of the pitchers he hopes to catch in the majors.
“That’s the kind of confidence he has,” major-league catching coach Tanner Swanson said. “That’s the kind of drive he has to push the envelope and get to this level as fast as he can.”
On Tuesday, the Yankees promoted two of their top prospects — outfielder Everson Pereira and infielder Oswald Peraza — in a clear shift in philosophy that will guide the rest of the season. While the Yankees will prioritize winning every night despite being all but out of the playoff race, manager Aaron Boone said, they will also be looking ahead to 2024, which means they could give opportunities to more prospects to prove themselves as part of the future.
“We have some exciting players,” Boone told reporters before Tuesday’s game against the Nationals at Yankee Stadium. “Whether they’re here now already in our system or, in some cases, other guys still knocking on the door to be able to get a look up-close with regular at-bats. (We’ll) kind of make stronger, better evaluations, and expose them to tougher competition. Those are all important things moving forward to help you try and really have a good understanding of what you have.”
Austin (has power) Wells: It’s a GRAND SLAM‼️
Following a three-run homer earlier this afternoon, Wells drills a 401 ft. grand slam to left-center.
Wells is up to four home runs on the week against Worcester, posting 7 RBI today. Chris Gittens was the last RailRider to have a 7… pic.twitter.com/vh0k68TwKF
— SWB RailRiders (@swbrailriders) August 20, 2023
Wells seems likely to join Pereira and Peraza soon, perhaps when MLB rosters expand to 28 players from 26 on Sept. 1. Teams will be permitted to add an extra position player and an extra pitcher. The additional roster spots would make it easier for the Yankees to carry three catchers — Kyle Higashioka, Ben Rortvedt and, possibly, Wells. While contemplating promoting Pereira and Peraza, the Yankees’ decision-makers also seriously discussed calling up Wells, according to a high-level team source, who spoke to The Athletic on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk publicly. Starter Jose Trevino (wrist surgery) has been on the injured list since July 21 and won’t play the rest of the season.
Boone said Wells is “someone that’s definitely on the radar” to get called up.
He’s long been on the minds of Yankees fans after the team picked him 28th overall and gave him a $2.5 million signing bonus out of the University of Arizona in 2020. The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked Wells as the team’s No. 8 overall prospect before the start of the regular season.
Entering Tuesday, Wells, a lefty hitter, had hit .241 with 16 homers, 70 RBI and a .781 OPS between Low-A Tampa, Double-A Somerset and Triple A. He missed all of big-league spring training due to a cracked 12th rib, which was initially diagnosed as a bruise. After a five-game stint at Low A, he hit .237 with 11 home runs, 50 RBI and a .770 OPS in 58 games at Double A. The same day Trevino went on the IL, the Yankees moved Wells to Triple A, where he hit .260 with four home runs, 18 RBI and a .831 OPS in 25 games.
But Wells’ bat has hardly been the question. The concern about Wells since he was drafted has been that he might not stick behind the plate in the majors due to various defensive deficiencies, including a middling arm. Wells had surgery on his throwing elbow in high school in Las Vegas and served as a DH his entire senior year, but has been healthy ever since. Swanson said that Wells has added approximately 5 mph to his average throw since getting drafted, and cited his work with minor-league catching coordinator Aaron Gershenfeld and defensive coach Aaron Bossi for his improvements.
“It’s been a continued growth,” Swanson said. “He’s only gotten better since he joined our system. He’s made a lot of really positive gains on the receiving front. The blocking has come a long way and the arm has improved. That was probably the biggest concern, probably, when we acquired him. The arm strength. He’s kind of met every program that we’ve put in front of him and has seen gains and he’s been really committed to just our process. It’s a testament to him, but it’s a testament to our player development group, too.”
And it’s been a testament to Wells’ stick-to-itiveness. He’s well aware that many have doubted his future as a catcher.
“Honestly,” Swanson said, “it’s fueled him. I know a lot of players say that, but I think he has a chip on his shoulder that he’s out to kind of prove that not only this is the position he wants to play at the major-league level, but that he’s capable, and he’s shown us no signs in his performance that that’s not the case.”
The Yankees hope Wells ends up the real deal. They haven’t had a catching prospect as promising since Gary Sánchez, who burst onto the scene in 2016 and was twice an All-Star but whose career in pinstripes flamed out as his bat stalled and his defense underwhelmed. The Yankees bailed on the Sánchez era when they sent him to the Twins in a disaster trade that netted the Yankees disappointments Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Rortvedt. Trevino may be one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but he’s been a below-average hitter for his career.
Boone said he sees Wells as “a guy with a lot of potential.”
“Not a finished product,” Boone said. “Still really behind the plate working to make strides — and (he) has made strides this year.”
Those strides may soon take Wells from Triple A to the Bronx.
(Photo: Courtesy of Somerset Patriots)