Former Hokie baseball star Austin Wates is about to make the leap to the big leagues, as the 25 year old outfielder has put up solid numbers throughout his four year stint in the minors. Wates is currently a member of the Houston Astros organization, playing for their Triple A affiliate, the Oklahoma City Redhawks. Wates is listed at 6'1, 185 pounds, and he bats and throws from the right side.
Wates' Professional Career So Far
Wates was drafted in the 2010 MLB Rule IV Draft (first year players) in the 3rd round by the Houston Astros. He has just begun his 5th year in the Astros organization, beginning in Rookie ball and now having stopped at every level along the way. Wates has managed a .305 career batting average, along with 17 home runs, 82 stolen bases, and 54 doubles in 310 total minor league games. Wates has proved that he can handle Triple A pitching as well, batting .313 (along with going 19 for 19 on stolen base attempts over parts of two seasons) in 44 games at the Triple A level.
Wates can also play all three outfield positions, which can bolster his chances of sticking in the majors. Over his five minor league seasons, Wates has spent 139 games in left field, 112 in center, and 38 in right. He has collected 15 total assists with a .979 fielding percentage throughout his minor league career as well. He has only made one error in his past two years.
What Is Keeping Wates From The Majors?
Wates is not currently on the Astros 40-man roster, the Astros would need to buy his contract from Oklahoma City and add him to the 40-man. Rookie sensation George Springer will be manning a spot in the Astros outfield for a very long time, and Dexter Fowler, Robbie Grossman, and Alex Presley are the other outfielders on the Astros active 25-man roster. Two other outfielders, L.J. Hoes and Domingo Santana, are also on the 40-man roster, and both are playing with Wates on Oklahoma City. Hoes played for a long-time in the Orioles organization, and I can say from personal experience that he should be no threat to Wates, when he is deemed ready.
The Astros OF situation has long been decried as one of the worst in baseball. Santana is highly touted with a better power bat than Wates, and projects to be a 25-30 homer hitter. Much younger than Wates as 22, and an international signing, he definitely rates higher internally than Wates as far as a prospect and as a high-priced investment. He has the arm to play right, which is fortunate for Wates. What will likely occur when Santana is ready is that George Springer would move to CF, where he has played extensively in the minors, with Santana moving into RF, and then Wates to LF or the bench OF spot when Fowler plays.
Honestly, injuries have probably proved the biggest hindrance to Wates development, as they've prohibited him from playing full seasons the past two years. He played a complete first season, but had an injury-shortened 2012, and his 2013 was almost a complete waste as he saw action in just 38 games. His best campaign was in 2011 at High-A ball Lancaster, where he put up a .300 batting average with six home runs and an eye-opening 75 RBI (a number that he'll likely never duplicate in his future role in Houston). His slugging percentage that year (a very low .366) was indicative that his gap power needed some improvement. 23 doubles for so many at-bats means that you're getting by too much with the legs, and organizations allow that minor league defense can be a big contributor to guys' success when they only hit the ball on the ground.
But he does have the strength if he can get the right backspin on it. This from earlier this season:
His plate discipline and speed would be likely upgrades to a LF position that ranks 27th in the majors (not different from too many other key spots for Houston) with a WRC+ of just 72 (with 100 being average, and Oakland leading the majors with a 144). WRC+ is an advanced metric that makes distinctions between how many runs team create offensively at a given position. He has a grasp on AAA pitching so far this season, lingering near .300 and walking more than he is striking out, a complete career reversal from habits that saw striking out at almost double the rate of his walks.
Wates' speed and ability to play all three outfield spots are two of his most unique traits, and they may come in handy at some point for the Astros this season.If Wates is able to impress the Astros front office he could earn a call to the majors at some-point (September, when the rosters expand, would appear to be the odds-on favorite scenario). However, with an ear to the ground, his arrival date may be much sooner, and might happen shortly after the All-Star break in late July. Dexter Fowler is still under team control, and is a triples machine, in his first year in Houston after coming over in an off-season trade with Colorado. He is not a piece you build your team around, but on a sorry club like this his OPS+ of 117 is not going to cost him a job. Wates should watch his progress with interest because Colorado's park factor was likely a contributor to some of Fowler's success, and in Minute Maid Park's friendlier confines he might find his slap and run game a little more constricted.
The Astros Though? Yuck, right?
Under their now not so new owner, Houston has admittedly torn down their major league outfit in favor of building a team around home-grown prospects and is likely three-to-four years away from contending for a division title, let alone a championship. They will continue to have trouble contending in the AL West against big spenders Anaheim and Texas, and will have difficulty solving the Moneyball A's without signing some key free agents to go along with all the high draft picks they've amassed. But help is on the way, with them drafting at the top of each round, and drafting elite starting pitching in Brady Aiken, Mark Appel, and just having welcomed Jarred Cosart, the Astros young arms just need to catch up to some of their MLB ready bats which are just a bit ahead.
It's not a bad situation to enter into for a young player, but let's not forget Wates is going to be 26 in September, which is not exactly young anymore, his time is definitely now. Particularly with the pedigreed Delino Deshields coming up right behind him in the organization; and other fantastic talents just a couple rungs back in Teoscar Hernandez, and Preston Tucker who anchored the Florida Gators offense, leading them to three consecutive College World Series. And if that weren't enough, just like the regular job market gets flooded every summer with fresh graduates, this past weekend's draft just netted the Astros a 1st round OF pick from UVA in Derek Fisher who most likely will be looking to start in AA next year, immediately pushing him into the top three OF prospects in their organization.
Keep an eye out for more similar pieces to this one, as we will be checking in on the minor league careers of many former Hokie baseball players.