Friday is the most exciting day in Yankeeland in quite some time, which is both an indictment of the major league club and a credit to the scouts and player development professionals who found, nurtured and delivered Jasson Dominguez and Austin Wells to the major leagues.
Both will join the Yanks in Houston as September callups. Dominguez, 20, arrives as one of the most hyped international prospects of all time after signing with the Yankees for a franchise record $5.1 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2019. Wells, 24, is expected to be one of the Yankees' catchers next season, according to team sources. His readiness will create a logjam, because the team loves platinum glove winner Jose Trevino and values backups Kyle Higashioka and Ben Rortvedt. However that all shakes out, the Yankees believe that Wells' time has come.
In advance of these significant debuts, we spoke to Yankees vice president of player development Kevin Reese. Questions and answers are lightly edited for clarity.
SNY: With Dominguez, the obvious question is how he earned a promotion after just 31 at-bats in Triple-A? What boxes did he check at that level that made you guys comfortable with such a quick callup?
Reese: There is some stuff going on in Triple-A right now that’s really weird. I say that in a good way, because I think it’s good for the game. I don’t know that we want to get into too much detail about this, but the automated strike zone is helping hitters a lot and making it harder for pitchers. So we had some discussions about what it means to check that box in Triple-A versus what it used to mean? And I think it’s a little different for different guys.
Jasson has always been a guy who controlled the strike zone pretty well, and he controlled it even better with the automated strike zone. That can give guys a little bit of a false sense at times when they get to the big leagues, and all of a sudden that pitch that’s two, three inches off the plate is called a strike. He has done a great job laying off pitches that were out of the zone and swinging at pitches he could do something with.
It was a very short period of time in Triple-A, but he crushed it. What we saw as the season went on, he started in Double-A with a really good process and not getting much results. And then in the middle of the season he started getting some results and the process wasn’t quite as good. Then [Double-A Somerset hitting coach] Jake Hirst and [hitting coordinator] Joe Migliaccio and these guys that work with him on a regular basis focused on, ‘Hey, let’s control what we can control, and do the things that we know are conducive to success.’
And then in that last month or six weeks before he went to Triple-A everything came together, and it was all really good. He started hitting the ball in the air a bit more. He was getting some home runs, but really controlling the walks and strikeouts. Improving defensively, improving on the bases.
This is a guy who, when he first got here, didn’t want to steal bases because he didn’t like to slide. And we had some guys -- actually not guys, because [Single-A Tampa manager] Rachel [Balkovec] was included in that -- got him to work on his comfort with sliding or diving. That has really helped his stolen base numbers.
SNY: Do you see his defensive tools as better suited to center field or left field?
Reese: I’ll go back in time. When he showed up, he was great at a lot of things. Amazing at a lot of things, but he needed work in a lot of areas that I don’t think get touched on as much in the tryout circuit. Just the game feel, the game polish. And a little bit of defense. Sometimes they just throw you in the outfield and hit you a fungo and you don’t have to deal with other people out there.
I would say speed/range-wise, he has the ability to play center field. There is still a little bit of game polish [to learn]. We exposed him a bit to the [left field] corner. We all know that in Yankee Stadium that’s a really important defensive position as well [Yankee Stadium has one of the largest left fields in all of baseball]. There is a lot of confidence that he’s going to be able to handle one of those two spots.
A lot of times, that depends on who is around him on the roster and things like that. But the speed now and the field [tool] in the future will give him the ability to play center field. I think there will be some bumps along the road. This is a 20-year-old going to the big leagues, and this is not a Devon White out there yet or anything like that, but he has the ability to finish plays. He has the ability to range in, out, left and right. It’s just getting consistent jumps and finishing every play.
SNY: No one should have to deal with comparisons to Mickey Mantle and Mike Trout. Has he done well in handling all the hype and keeping it in perspective?
Reese: So far he has. This is going to be a different level. He’s had Futures Games, but this is going to be every day. I assume that’s not just going to pop on and he’s going to hit .300 with a 30-home run pace his whole career. He’s already had some struggles, and that has helped him. I honestly don’t know how he does it. I have never seen anything like what he has gone through.
The first day we came back from COVID, we were doing testing in a hotel parking lot, and people literally showed up to get his autograph. They waited and waited and waited. And this guy might have been 17 at the time, 18. He hasn’t played a single game here and this is what he’s dealing with. It has to weigh on you on some level, but he has done a great job handling it.
SNY: With Wells, scouts say is he a very polished hitter in all aspects. Do you agree?
Reese: He has always had a really professional approach. A lot of times that’s a finishing piece that you work on -- that approach part is an end-of-the-road adjustment that guys learn as they go up. He came through the door with a much more professional approach than most. He’s not just looking to ambush. He’s doing homework.
One of the things that makes him stand out on on both sides of the ball is his willingness to work at it. That doesn't just mean in the cage or behind the plate, but the homework aspect. He has been begging to get access to advanced information -- the major league stuff -- since he was in Triple-A. I was like, “Hey, man, be where you are. I love your drive, but stick with where you are.”
But we gave him little bits and pieces. Guys go up to the big leagues and you see early swings out of the zone and things like that. I’m not as worried about that with him because I think he’s got a better idea of what pitchers are trying to do to him.
SNY: Is he more of a power hitting, a contact hitter, gap-to-gap?
Reese: He’s somewhere in the middle. He’s not going to never strike out. He’s not going to hit 700-foot home runs. But he has enough pop to live in the gaps, and some balls are going to go over the fence. He can drive the ball to all fields. He has the ability to make adjustments with two strikes and put the ball in play as well.
SNY: How is he in the unquantifiable but important area of working with pitchers, forming relationships, calling games -- the intangible aspect of the position?
Reese: That has always been really good for him. It’s really hard to be a leader in minor league baseball. He has been a guy who has never been afraid to hold others accountable, and never afraid to lead by example, show up early and those types of things. That always bodes well for that pitcher/catcher relationship.
There are some guys who just step in there and act like they know what’s going on, or say generic things about pitching mechanics to try to get a guy back on track. But [Wells] is a guy who has done the homework to know that pitcher’s arsenal. He knows what the pitching coach uses to get that guy back on track. That has always been a strong aspect of his game.
SNY: MLB Pipeline has him with a 40 arm [on a 20-80 scouting scale]. How is that coming along for him?
Reese: I will say that he showed up and the arm wasn’t great. I’m not going to say that he’s Pudge Rodriguez back there by any stretch, but both he and our development group -- which includes a lot of people, not just Aaron Gershenfeld, our catching coordinator -- have done a ton of work with him. He’s really resourceful, and has gotten into the pitching department. The pure arm strength, I think it actually grades out close to average.
Now, there is more that goes into it. You have to be accurate. You have to have a good exchange. And these are things that he needs to continue to work on. It can be consistent at times, it can be inconsistent at times. Now we’ve got, between [Everson] Pereira, [Oswald] Peraza, Wells, Jasson and even [Anthony] Volpe and Oswaldo Cabrera, these guys are not finished products. They have things to continue to work on.
That is going to be the key to this adjustment with them. Some guys get to the big leagues are they’re in “maintain” mode. These guys are in “develop and maintain” mode.
SNY: How are his blocking and receiving? There are obviously external questions about whether he’ll stick at catcher long-term, though I know the Yankees like him there.
Reese: Everything is caught up, in my opinion, to be able. That consistency and that grind to maintain on that day-to-day basis is going to be the key for him. I bet on his work ethic, and I bet on his desire. He’s got a lot of bulletin-board material, and that drives him in a good way, like, “I’m gonna work to get where I want to be, and be a catcher every day.”