TAMPA, Fla. — Tyler Austin was fishing in the nearby suburbs when he heard the news that hurt his chances, more than any other player’s, of making the Yankees out of spring training.
“Someone messaged me and said, ‘Hey, the Yankees just signed Chris Carter,’ ” Austin said Monday afternoon. “I said, ‘OK, that’s fine,’ and went right back to fishing.”
“Didn’t catch anything that day,” he said. “I don’t know what that means, but . . . ”
Late last season, general manager Brian Cashman tabbed Austin, 25, as one of two players who will compete for the starting job at first base this year. Greg Bird has been the prohibitive favorite all along, which Cashman also repeatedly said, but Austin appeared to be in position to grab a backup spot with a strong spring training.
Then Carter was signed.
Austin, who is noticeably more muscular, was among the first to arrive at the minor-league complex for spring training prep. He’s been there almost every day since the third week of January, working not only at first base but also at third and in the outfield.
Except for third, Carter can play those positions, too, though he’s not an especially strong fielder. Carter, however, shared the National League lead with 41 homers last season, so at least at the start of the season, his roster spot is all but guaranteed.
Austin said his attitude hasn’t changed.
“I think he’s going to help the team and I’m going to go into spring and do everything I can to make the team,” said Austin, who still can be optioned to the minors. “I’m just going to come in and try to make the team any way that I can, whether that’s first, third, leftfield or right.”
In 31 games last year, Austin played first base, rightfield and leftfield and also DHed. He homer ed in his first career at-bat Aug. 13 but finished with a .241/.300/.458 slash line, five homers and 12 RBIs in 83 at-bats. Although his bat never truly got going, he played relatively well defensively, something he shared during a talk with the minor-leaguers here last week.
His message? Don’t slack on your defense. It helped keep him in the majors even while he slumped offensively.
Austin is likely to see time at third base in exhibition games — the reason the Yankees already have had him taking grounders there — and the position isn’t unfamiliar to him. He played third his freshman and sophomore years in high school and in 2011 with the rookie Gulf Coast Yankees and then at Staten Island (he also played first that year).
“Once we get some game experience out there in leftfield and third base, I think I’ll feel a lot better,” Austin said, “But right now, I feel pretty good.”
Although one might think Austin took extra motivation from Cashman’s declaration that the organization hoped Bird would win the first-base job, he said that wasn’t the case. Just as the signing of Carter doesn’t have him overly upset.
“I’m not going to worry about what I can’t control,” Austin said. “Just play the game the way I know how to play it and enjoy it, because this is a big opportunity.”