I don’t have a lot of time today, but I’d like to offer a brief thought on Tyler Austin. As you’ve probably heard by now, Austin is on fire. He is hitting .444/.487/1.028 on the season, a year after slugging .354/.418/.579 in 47 games for the GCL Yankees. He’s finally getting some attention for being a strong prospect, but still probably isn’t considered on the same level as the rest of the Charleston Riverdogs players. Why? Because he plays first base.
Minor league first basemen get no respect, especially ones like Austin who were signed out of high school. For the most part, this is for good reason. A player who is already unable to play any position other than first base at that young of an age have little room for error. A shortstop can always shift to second or third base, or a center fielder can slot over to right or left. A first baseman needs to perform at that position, because if they had the speed or athleticism to play another position, they would have moved over already. This makes them not only less useful as potential major league regulars, but often ineffective bench players as well. Layer this on top of the hitting competition they face at the position, and the outlook doesn’t seem all that good for a 19 year-old 1b. Guys like Kyle Roller can hit all the home runs they want in the low minor leagues, but we assume that will fade as they rise.
I think that sometimes we go a little far in knocking down minor league first basemen. Part of it is how we evaluate players. I saw one evaluation the other day where Austin was knocked as a guy with not a lot of tools, just a great bat. Of course that’s what he is! We refer to five tools, but the great lesson of minor league baseball in Moneyball was that not all tools are equal. If Austin can hit, hit for power, and show plate discipline, he’s going to be a successful baseball player.
We’re a long way from pronouncing Tyler Austin as a top prospect. However, we shouldn’t fail to rank him there just because he plays first base and doesn’t run fast. If Austin can hit well, he will make the major leagues. He has yet to prove he can’t hit well. He deserves some respect, especially while he still has a slugging percentage over 1.000.
Update for Clarity: I should have made this clear: I’m well aware that the Yankees have had Austin play in the outfield lately, as well as 3rd base last year. But make no mistake: the scouting report on Austin is that he is a first baseman. The Yankees like to do this sort of position switch down in Low-A. Rob Segedin and J.R. Murphy are recent examples.
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