The 2015 season is a potential make-or-break year for Yankees outfield prospect Tyler Austin.
He'll either make the team out of spring training or earn a ticket to the Bronx when a starter breaks down.
Either way, Austin stands a good chance of making his major league debut this year. He has a solid resume, positional versatility (he plays rightfield and first base) and, most importantly, holds a spot on the 40-man roster. The 40-man spot means Austin can be recalled by the Yankees at any time and the team can shuttle him between the major and minor-league levels without fear of losing him to another organization.
And those positive attributes are good news for Austin, because it's also a literal make or break year for him as a "prospect" in a Yankees farm system suddenly flush with burgeoning talent. Big-time positional prospects are on the horizon (those footsteps you hear belong to sluggers Greg Bird and Aaron Judge), and Austin is either primed to catapult to the majors, wind up a casualty of the numbers game or play himself into a valuable commodity as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
Selected by the Yankees in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, Austin broke out in 2012, batting .322 with a .400 on-base percentage, 17 home runs, 35 doubles and 23 stolen bases in 110 games, mostly at Single-A Charleston and Single-A Advanced Tampa. That performance earned the Georgia native a top-100 prospect ranking by MLB.com and Baseball America prior to the 2013 season.
Austin switched between the corner infield positions during his first minor league season in 2011 before settling in rightfield in 2012. Though he remained a rightfielder primarily, Austin continued playing first base on occasion, giving him some positional flexibility. Hampered by a wrist injury during his first go-round at Double-A Trenton in 2013, Austin posted a .265 average, .351 OBP and 24 extra-base hits in 85 games.
He repeated the level in 2014, hitting .275 with a .336 OBP, nine home runs and 20 doubles in 105 games. The overall power output appeared disappointing. His 166 total bases ranked 30th in the Eastern League, and his nine home runs ranked 32nd. Austin's .419 slugging percentage ranked 53rd.
But Austin turned a corner during the second half of the season. He batted .248 with a .309 OBP and .358 slugging percentage in his first 72 games but went on a torrid post-All-Star stretch, hitting .336/.397/.557 in his final 33 games.
The Yankees sent Austin to the Arizona Fall League following the end of his Double-A season to see if the rebound was for real.
Teammates Bird and Judge stole headlines with impressive displays of power, however, Austin's consistent approach led to a .304 average and .392 OBP, both figures 11th-best in the AFL. A knee injury ended his time in Arizona prematurely, though only rest, not surgery, was prescribed and the injury isn't expected to be a factor in 2015.
Austin was added to the Yankees' 40-man roster on Nov. 20 in order to shield him from the Rule 5 Draft, the annual activity that allows baseball teams to pilfer each other's farm systems. He's on track to start this season at Triple-A.
Now Austin, 23, faces his last barrier to the Bronx: Getting a spot on the 25-man roster.
The team is flush with outfielders. Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chris Young all have multi-million dollar contracts and experience at all three outfield posts. Part-time players Garrett Jones, who can play first base and right field, and Jose Pirela, who plays second and right, are first in line for bench jobs. If Austin outplays Pirela and Jones, he'll still likely be sent to the minors in order to receive regular playing time.
In the event of an injury to one of the starting outfielders, the Yankees are well covered. Two injuries could be a different story, however, and the Yankees have been particularly injury prone the past two seasons.
Austin's best shot to make the majors could be if Mark Teixeira requires a stay on the disabled list. Teixeira, who turns 35 shortly after Opening Day, hasn't played in more than 123 games in any of the last three seasons. His right wrist is a constant concern.
If Teixeira is sidelined for a short period of time, Jones likely would be the first choice at first, given his 438 MLB starts at the position. But if a lengthy absence occurred, the Yankees would have a decision to make. The lefthanded-swinging Jones has an .811 career on-base plus slugging percentage vs. righthanded pitchers, but just a .573 career OPS against lefties.
That deficiency could open up a spot for the righthanded Austin, at the very least in a platoon capacity. Austin had a .460 slugging percentage vs. lefthanded pitchers at Double-A in 2014, but slugged only .397 against righthanded hurlers.
There's also the chance that Austin gets off to a strong start while the relatively low-salaried (by Yankees standards) Jones and Young scuffle.
That could prompt the release of one or both of the veterans and a call to the 6-1, 220 pound prospect in his make-or-break year.