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Yankees believe first-round pick Austin Wells has a high ceiling to grow as a catcher

FILE - In this April 9, 2019, file

FILE - In this April 9, 2019, file photo, Arizona first baseman Austin Wells catches a throw during the team's NCAA college baseball game against Grand Canyon in Phoenix. The New York Yankees selected Wells in the first round of the baseball draft Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File) Credit: AP/Rick Scuteri

Yankees first-round pick Austin Wells sees himself long-term as a catcher, questions about his defense aside.

“I’m a catcher. I want to be a catcher,” he said Thursday before quickly adding that he’s more than willing to play wherever the Yankees want.

No worries. At the moment, the team also sees the 20-year-old Wells, selected 28th overall out of Arizona, behind the plate.

“There’s a lot of ceiling for growth [defensively] because his mental side is so strong, and he’s a good athlete,” Yankees vice president of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer said Friday morning via conference call. “And even from talking to the guys that have coached him in college, they know that there’s more to be done with him defensively because the coaching just hasn’t been the best coaching for him as a catching guy. So, nothing against the guys that have coached him, but we’ve got guys that are much better at it and that are going to help him move on with the catching really at a quick rate.”

Wells has drawn some harsh critiques from scouts for his defense but has gotten raves from those same scouts because of his power bat. The lefthanded hitter had a .353/.462/.552 slash line in 2019, becoming the first Wildcat to be named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. He had a .375/.527/.589 slash line in 15 games this year before the college season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wells was a draft-eligible sophomore because he will be 21 within 45 days of the draft (July 12). The Yankees already had done extensive work on him, making him a 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft, but he chose to honor his commitment to Arizona.

“It was a pretty happy time for us when he was getting down toward us [at No. 28],” Oppenheimer said. “We think he can be an impactful guy, especially in our stadium. He’s a mentally strong kid, so the weight of the pinstripes isn’t going to affect him like some others.”

The Yankees were forced to forfeit second- and fifth-round picks after signing free agent Gerrit Cole and thus had only two other picks in the draft, which was cut from 40 rounds to five because of the coronavirus.

With their third-round pick (99th overall), they took Trevor Hauver, a lefthanded-hitting outfielder out of Arizona State. They plan to have him play the infield (as he did in high school), likely second and third base, Oppenheimer said.

In the fourth round (129th overall), the Yankees took Beck Way, a 6-4, 200-pound righthander out of Northwest Florida State whose fastball hit 98 mph last summer in the Cape Cod League.

“Even though we’ve only got three guys, we obviously think we did really good with these three guys,” Oppenheimer said.

With more players to come. As part of an earlier agreement reached with the Players Association, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday, teams can sign an unlimited number of undrafted players at a maximum of $20,000 per player. Industry expectations are that the Yankees will be among the more active teams when the signing period begins.

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