Tyler Austin hasn’t hit a home run in his last 10 games. Instead, he’s just hit a pedestrian .452/.540/.595, raising his average all the way to .323. His walk rate has significantly increased in the month of May, even as his strikeouts have remained elevated. He’s even chipped in on the bases with 7 stolen bases without being caught over his last 10 games.
The dude’s on fire, and has been for a long time now. Austin is now sitting at .336/.408/.618 in 98 career minor league games. If he were drafted in the 1st round instead of the the 13th, we would probably be talking about in as a top-10 prospect in all of baseball this year. He wasn’t drafted in the 1st round for good reason, but the longer Austin continues to destroy pitchers who are on average older and much more experienced than he is, the more he starts to look like that prospect, even if he profiles as a 1st baseman long term.
At some point, Austin will be promoted to High-A Tampa. As far as I can tell, there are three possibilities for the timing of his promotion:
Promote him after the All-Star Break – The South Atlantic League will play its All Star game on June 19th. The festivities will be pretty cool, and includes a home run derby on the USS Yorktown. Austin will no doubt take part in that event. The Yankees love to promote players around this time, and the break would provide a good opportunity to make a move.
The logic behind a quicker promotion is all about challenging Tyler Austin. He’s hitting as well as he possibly could hit in Low-A, and doesn’t seem to have much to learn there. Players who aren’t challenged can develop bad habits. Furthermore, a quicker development path means that Austin will progress to the major leagues sooner. An early promotion holds open the possibility of a 2013 season that starts in Double-A, at just 21 years old. He could even end up in the Arizona Fall League, if they are ambitious.
The con to this approach is that Austin may be rushed. He’s still just 20 years old, and young for his level. He is hot now, but you’d like to see Austin struggle for a little bit, make adjustments, and then be able to recover and gain his confidence back. When you rush a prospect, you face the possibility of that prospect not successfully making adjustments, and in the best case losing confidence in his abilities, and in the worst case straining and risking injury or changing their approach in an unproductive way. Obviously, whether or not this is a problem is a call that only the Yankee staff can make.
Promote him in late mid-t0-late July – The Yankees also have tended to push rising prospects to a higher level with about 40-50 games remaining in the minor league season. They gain a significant amount of experience at the higher level, but not enough to complete that level and move up after the offseason. This accelerates a player’s progression somewhat, but not nearly as much as an early promotion would.
I don’t think there’s too much to say about the pros and cons of this kind of promotion. It offers a balance between the above and below options.
Promote him after the season – The Yankees would stay very patient, and keep Austin at Low-A no matter how well he hits. They’d probably do what they did with Montero and flat-out tell him that no matter how well he hits, he isn’t getting promoted. This would conceivably help him to focus on development instead of trying too hard to move up.
Beyond that, I can think of two big reasons why the Yankees might wait a full season. First off, if you view Austin as a future 1st baseman, the Yankees may not have a good spot for him for some time. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are under contract for a long time, and likely will block Austin at the position. Given that the non-prospect Reymond Nunez has been the Riverdogs’ primary 1st baseman, I don’t doubt that the Yankees are playing Austin mostly in right field in order to try and work around this problem. However, despite his strong baseball IQ, scouts have made it clear that Austin’s speed isn’t going to cut it much in the outfield long term. Given the logjam at 1st, the Yankees have an incentive to take their time in promoting Austin.
The second reason why they may wait is more of a hunch. We’ve heard a lot of quotes about how the 2011 short-season Yankee prospect crew really bonded as a group of highly-talented prospects. This group includes Angelo Gumbs, Mason Williams, Cito Culver, Dante Bichette and Ben Gamel. The Yankees may want to, for the most part, keep the unit together. I can see value in that kind of camaraderie among highly talented prospects. I don’t put Gary Sanchez in this group, but I might add in Bryan Mitchell and Jose Campos. The unit won’t stay together forever, but the Yankees may see benefit in moving them in some kind of tandem. Unfortunately, none of them have started out as hot as Austin, and everyone in the group other than Williams has struggled, clearly not ready for promotion. The response to this argument is that Gumbs, Culver, and Bichette, the group that is struggling most, are all 19 year-olds, while Williams, Sanchez (19, but been around longer), and Austin are more experienced.
Personally, I lean toward the more aggressive side of things. Austin isn’t an 18 year old kid signed a year ago out of the Dominican Republic, like Montero was at Low-A. He’s old enough that physical development is less of an issue than experience. If he’s not getting the experience he needs, you have the opportunity cost of lost development time.
I’m going to be ranking Tyler Austin very high in my pre-draft prospect rankings. On top of that, you can be sure that if he’s hitting .336/.410/.620 at the end of the season, Austin all of the sudden be one of the very best prospects in all of baseball. He’s not there, yet, but he is a lot closer than he was at the start of the season.