When the Twins signed Lance Lynn during spring training, it appeared that his presence would help stifle any worries about Ervin Santana missing the start of the season due to finger surgery. However, Lynn created his own agony as he struggled mightily upon arriving in Minnesota, averaging a walk per inning pitched and allowing at least 5 runs in four of his first five starts. He still walked far too many hitters after those first five April starts, but the rest of his numbers were more tolerable as he amassed a 4.35 ERA and 3.90 FIP, numbers that any team would accept out of a middle-of-the-rotation arm.
Thanks to that turnaround, the New York Yankees came calling at the July trade deadline and worked out a deal to send Lynn out of Minnesota. In exchange, the Twins acquired 19-year old pitcher Jose Rijo and 26-year old first baseman Tyler Austin.
Though Austin already had almost 90 games of major league experience, he was sent to Triple-A due to the presence of Joe Mauer and the specter of Logan Morrison. It didn’t take long for him to make it back to the majors, though, as 10 days later Adalberto Mejia hit the disabled list with a sore wrist. The next day, the Twins and Morrison determined his hip had become too problematic and he too was placed on the disabled list, clearing a path for at least some playing time for Austin.
Initially, I thought the plan was for him to smack around lefthanded pitchers. His Twins debut came on August 11th against Francisco Liriano and the Detroit Tigers, and the next day his name was pencilled in the lineup again against Matthew Boyd. Though he did get to face righty Jameson Taillon on August 14th, Paul Molitor placed him in the 9-hole of the batting order, an odd place for a power hitter. Austin would bounce around the lineup in spite of starting nearly everyday, batting 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th since joining the Twins.
The reason the Yankees made Austin expendable was due to his power-only profile. He had consistently posted an isolated power at .200 or above in the major leagues, territory reserved for the league’s top power hitters. However, he struggled to even reach the mid-.200s with his batting average and he struck out as often as Miguel Sano. Even with Greg Bird constantly battling injuries, Austin was never able to take advantage of the opening at first base and found himself on the trading block. I find it rather telling that the Yankees jettisoned Austin and then promptly acquired first baseman Luke Voit from St. Louis, a player that was slightly older but had a very similar profile. (It also helped that Voit still had a minor league option for 2019.)
While the slugger that entered the Big Apple has been on fire (187 wRC+) since donning pinstripes, the one that shedded the iconic uniform has been even better. A 202 wRC+ for Austin has been a welcome sight for Twins fans after suffering through Morrison’s “hitting,” and a player that probably would have been a bench bat in 2019 now looks like a potential starting player next season. The .452 ISO that Austin carries as a Twin is a mark only achievable long-term by vintage Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth, but he’s nonetheless left encouraging signs such as reducing his strikeout rate to 26% prior to Tuesday night’s game (naturally, he struck out 3 times). Austin’s power numbers will inevitably come back down to earth, but making more contact is a pleasant sight and bodes well for his future success.
It’s interesting that the Twins already have Brent Rooker in Double-A, a similar hitter to Austin. Rooker should certainly reach the majors next season and before the acquisition of Austin, it seemed that Rooker and Joe Mauer splitting time at first base and designated hitter would be a solid plan, assuming Mauer re-signed with the Twins. Then Austin came into the picture and I thought of him as Rooker insurance, a guy that would be the placeholder until Rooker was deemed ready. If Rooker struggled with his first taste of the major leagues, Austin would be available to step back into the lineup while Rooker received more minor league seasoning. Instead, Austin has been hitting so well that it sure looks like Rooker will have to prove that he’s the better hitter of the two. It’s kind of nice having this type of problem, where there’s two deserving hitters for possibly just one spot on the roster.
Austin has been a much improved hitter since joining the Twins. While some regression will be inevitable, he appears to be forcing his way into their future plans.