The Yankees have taken a quiet approach when it comes to making big moves ahead of the 2013 season, mostly due to cost-cutting measures, but a hoard of young talent at the lower levels of the Minors could bolster the club's future. Could Ichiro Suzuki's two-year deal this winter just be a Band-Aid until someone like Tyler Austin is ready?
Austin, ranked by MLB.com as the Yankees' No. 3 prospect entering 2013, is a power-hitting right fielder who has a knack for reaching base and stealing a few more. In two years, he's 41-of-43 in stolen base attempts, giving him a credible tool as he showcases his talents in New York's system.
Last year, the 2010 13th-round pick hit .322 with 17 homers, 80 RBIs and 23 steals. He owned a .400 on-base percentage and moved up three levels, prompting praise from the team's general manager Brian Cashman and an invite to Major League Spring Training.
Already in Tampa, Austin took a few minutes this week to give us his take on the game and his past:
MiLB.com: So let's first ask about your big news -- the Yankees invited you to Major League camp this spring. Congrats on that -- how excited are you for that opportunity?
Tyler Austin: Very excited about it -- it's something I've dreamed of my entire life. Especially to be with the Yankees and get this opportunity and go out and play with those guys -- it's going to be an unbelievable experience that I'll never forget.
MiLB.com: You were drafted as a catcher, began your career at third base and now you're out in right field. The Yankees have discussed moving you back to third, but it sounds like you're staying put for now. What's the story behind that? What do you prefer?
Austin: Honestly, I wouldn't mind being in any of those positions, I'm comfortable in the outfield, I was comfortable at first and third, so whatever they have for me, wherever I fit in the lineup, I'll go out and play to the best of my abilities.
MiLB.com: I think there's an interesting debate going on, even internally with the Yankees and definitely within the media and fan base about who this organization's best prospect is. Brian Cashman called you a "mega-prospect," and last winter, Mason Williams' name was thrown around a lot. Gary Sanchez obviously has received attention. Recently Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' vice president, told me he was high on Slade Heathcott. Where do you think you fit in amongst those guys?
Austin: It's just a great compliment to be put around in the same category as those guys, they are unbelievably great -- great guys in general.
MiLB.com: You were hit in the head by a pitch and spent three weeks on the disabled list this past July. How scary is that, not only in the moment it happens, but the aftermath and recovery?
Austin: It was in July ... July 3. It was pretty scary, but it's part of the game. It was unfortunate that it happened, but those things happen, and you deal with it and try to come back on the field.
MiLB.com: Minor Leaguers began wearing newer, more heavily padded helmets two years ago. Do you think those should be made mandatory in the Majors as well after what you went through?
Austin: I don't think so -- there's guys in the Majors who get hit in the head all the time. Pitches get away; it happens. I feel like, no matter how much you play, things are going to happen. It should stay the same.
MiLB.com: Your battle with cancer is something fans probably aren't aware of. You fought testicular cancer in 2010 and had surgery prior to the Draft. How much did that experience change your life?
Austin: It was right before my senior year [at Heritage High School in Georgia] when it happened, I was diagnosed, and when they told me, I was in shock. It's one of those things you really aren't prepared to hear at the time, or any time. It made me appreciate each and every day, every single day I'm out on the field. It's one of those things where you never know. I thank the Lord we found it early and got it taken care of before it did any damage. I thank the Lord he gave me this ability to play this great game and enjoy life.
MiLB.com: You got invited to the Aflac game that year before the Draft, right after surgery. How difficult was it to focus and play through all that pain and stress?
Austin: It was a week after surgery, I played in the game, it was emotional for me to get back on the field with my family, knowing it was such a big game like that. That was a big game in my life. Everybody was great about it and I was real thankful to get over that stuff and play in that game.
MiLB.com: Lance Armstrong beat the same form of cancer and his story has been in the news lately. Have you followed all of that drama? Did his fight help or inspire you while you were going through it all?
Austin: Yeah, especially my mom. Once she found out I had it and it was the same kind as Lance, she read his book, did research about all the stuff he did, the stuff he went through. She just explained to me the things he did to fight through it. It was a big thing for me too. Some of the stuff he did that got him though the tough times, it made him a legend in my mind, besides the fact he did the performance-enhancing drugs. He was a cyclist at a world-class level, maybe the best athlete at that level.
MiLB.com: Let's move back to 2012, a tremendous year for you (.322/17/80) moving up three levels in what was, in reality, your first full season with the Yankees. How happy are you with the results?
Austin: I was really, really happy with how it went -- I learned a lot throughout the season, but I've still got a lot of room for improvement. I've gotta go out each and every day and work harder to put myself in the position to be more successful than I was last year. But overall, I was really happy.
MiLB.com: You got to play alongside Alex Rodriguez in Tampa during his rehab last August. What was that like?
Austin: It was awesome -- he's a great guy and really works hard. It was an unbelievable opportunity to play on the same field with him in a regular-season game, an awesome experience.
MiLB.com: You were selected to the Futures Game this past summer but missed it due to the head injury. How disappointing was it to sit that one out?
Austin: It was hard for me, but it was a great honor to be invited out to that event. But it was really disappointing. I got to watch the game. That's the way things work sometimes.
MiLB.com: You're from Georgia, so I'm guessing you grew up a Braves and Chipper Jones fan, correct?
Austin: No (laughs). A Yankees fan. My favorite was Derek Jeter, my grandmother was a huge Yankees fan growing up and I would sit in her room and watch the games. I would go to games and I would love the way Jeter played and the hype of the Yankees just drew me to it.
MiLB.com: Have you met Derek?
MiLB.com: I talked to him for a minute or so, but that's about it. I haven't really sat down and had a conversation with him yet, but that's something I'm really looking forward to this spring.
MiLB.com: You're heading to big league camp, but realistically, you'll probably begin 2013 at Double-A Trenton. What do you think you need to do this summer to prove you're ready for New York?
Austin: Every part of my game from defense to base-running to the plate -- I need to improve on every bit of it before I'm ready to go to New York. Hopefully I work hard each and every day.
MiLB.com: Your production numbers are there, but you also have stolen a lot of bases at extremely high success rates, which is surprising since you're both a power hitter and a former catcher. How important is speed to your game?
Austin: It's pretty important, especially since a lot of guys don't think I'm gonna run or think I can, so it's been big. It's big getting into scoring position and getting the run in.
MiLB.com: Mark Newman, the Yankees' vice president of baseball operations, thinks you're better defensively in right than in the infield. True?
Austin: I believe so. ... [But] wherever they put me, I'll play to my ability and try to get better.
MiLB.com: OK, some quick questions. Favorite pregame meal?
Austin: I would have to say probably hamburgers. Usually one and a couple fruit snacks.
MiLB.com: If you weren't playing baseball, you'd be...
Austin: I'd probably be in the military or going to school.
MiLB.com: And finally, favorite TV show?
Austin: Duck Dynasty. You gotta watch, it's unbelievable.