Back in 2012, coming off a season in which he hit 17 home runs, drove in 80 runs and stole 23 bases, adding up to an OPS of .960, stardom was predicted for outfielder Tyler Austin, who had batted .322 (133-for-413) among four teams.
A personable guy and native of Conyers, Ga., the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Austin, who was taken by the Yankees in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, He was rated as the “steal” of the selections and cracked the Top 100 Prospects list at 75.
Then, with many figuring he would dominate the Double-A Eastern League in Trenton in 2013, he tailed off after a good start, finally being put on the disabled list with a wrist injury after 83 games, in which he batted .257 (82-for-319) with 17 doubles, a triple, six home runs and 40 RBIs.
Some thought he was pressing. Others felt he may have had that one flash-in-the-pan season. The answer, which nobody but Austin knew, was that he was playing with a hurting wrist for a few weeks.
“I had this (the wrist) for about a month and never told anybody,” Austin would explain later. “I wanted to play.”
That, except for a two-game stint in the Gulf Coast League, ended his 2013 season. He also was unable to play in the Arizona Fall League. Wrists can be a major problem for hitters, and questions began to arise about his offense, and would it ever be the same.
His defense seemed unaffected, and he continued to excel in right field. Meanwhile, the Yankees drafted Aaron Judge, who looks like a perfect heir-apparent in right field, arriving in The Bronx perhaps as early as 2016.
Austin began his 2014 season back in Trenton. He started off somewhat slowly, and was asked repeatedly if the wrist still bothered him. He told reporters it did not, and mentioned he needed to work on his timing and recognition at the plate.
In the second half of the season, it all came together for Austin, who, in 103 games at Trenton, batted .275 (109-for-396), with 20 doubles, five triples, nine homers, 47 RBIs and an OPS of .756. He also began to draw a few more walks, which was a good sign.
After the All-Star Break, Austin’s figures were .336/.397/.557, looking like the player he was in 2012. It was obvious he was healthy and happy.
“All feels good,” Austin said in Trenton in August. “I really feel all that bad stuff is behind me. I can’t wait to get to the Arizona Fall League this time.”
He played well in the AFL, ending with a .304/.392/.449 line before his season ended on the final weekend with a collision involving an outfield wall. He emerged with just bruises and is looking forward to spring training and a solid season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
A comeback year, approaching 20 home runs and 85 RBIs, will put Austin, who was protected from the Rule 5 draft and has a spot in the 40-man roster, right back in the Yankees’ plans. A hot start might even get him a call-up. He can play either corner of the outfield.
If Austin emerges, he opens the door to several scenarios. The Yankees could break both he and Judge in together. Austin could be a versatile fourth outfielder and DH. His defense is solid. He could also be a valuable major league-ready trade chip, given both Judge and Brett Gardner’s contract, along with the many outfield prospects the Yankees have in the upper minors.
This, however, is a crucial season for Austin. A return-to-form would place him above the crowd that includes Ramon Flores, Taylor Dugas, Jake Cave and Slade Heathcott.
Given his finish in 2014, and his play in Arizona, it’s legitimate to think Austin will cement his status in a positive way.