Two powerful words summarize the stockpile of raw baseball talent on the Charleston RiverDogs’ roster: Tyler Austin.
He is a 6-2, 200-pound right fielder from Conyers, Ga., just this side of Atlanta. He is 20 years old and doing a Prince Fielder impression in the low-Class A South Atlantic League. Going into tonight’s game at The Joe against the Lakewood BlueClaws, Austin has nine home runs, three more than all other RiverDogs combined.
Austin, the New York Yankees’ 13th-round draft pick in 2010, comes up in discussions about top prospects in Charleston. But, until the recent homer flurry, it was only after mention of six or seven other guys as young or younger.
“Our scouting department has done a phenomenal job over the last few years,” said RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn, a former major league veteran who lives full-time in Mount Pleasant.
Despite a 16-7 record — best in the South Atlantic League — it’s too early to say the RiverDogs are playoff-bound.
It’s not too early to say third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. is on the cover of Baseball America representing a “loaded Charleston RiverDogs team.” Or that this is the best collection of talent Charleston has seen since the RiverDogs’ affiliation with the Yankees began in 2005.
Probably better than the Tampa Rays-affiliated 2000 team that included Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford.
Maybe better than any team since the RiverDogs nickname was founded in 1994, or previously.
“Winning and talent don’t necessarily go together at that (Class A) level, but Charleston has played well and they’re talented,” Yankees Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Mark Newman said Tuesday.
“It’s a group with high-caliber character and work ethic. I think several of them will play in the majors and a few will be stars.”
Catcher Gary Sanchez signed out of the Dominican Republic for $3 million. After bouts with immaturity in Charleston last season, he seems to have straightened out and probably won’t be here much longer. Sanchez is the top-rated position player in the farm system.
“He’s a bright kid,” Newman said. “We’re happy to see him making the adjustments he has made off the field.”
Center fielder Mason Williams of Winter Garden, Fla., has the bloodline; his father is former New England Patriots wide receiver Derwin Williams, and his great-uncle is ex-big leaguer (and former RiverDogs manager) Walt “No Neck” Williams. He signed with South Carolina but opted for New York’s $1.45 million bonus in 2010, was named Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in the 2011 New York-Penn League and stole the Yankees’ minor league show this spring.
Which is saying something, considering Bichette, New York’s 2010 supplemental first-round pick, socked two home runs on the first two pitches he saw in a big league exhibition game.
Pitching? Right-handers Jose Campos and Bryan Mitchell set the tone, opening the season with six-inning, one-hit performances in back-to-back games.
Mitchell, a Reidsville, N.C., native who signed with North Carolina, has one of the best curveballs in the minors. Campos, a 6-4 Venezuelan with a lively fastball, might wind up as the key to one of the biggest trades of the offseason. He came from Seattle with pitcher Michael Pineda (out for the season with an arm injury) for catcher Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi, a pair of ex-RiverDogs.
“We certainly liked (Campos) and thought he was a significant piece of that deal,” Newman said. “We think Campos can be a rotation guy for us in the big leagues.”
Of course, every star-stacked team needs a middle infield.
Shortstop Cito Culver and second baseman Angelo Gumbs were the Yankees’ first and second picks in the 2010 draft, respectively.
Then there’s the sizzling Austin.
“Several of us before the season started talked to people inside and outside the organization about how much improvement this young guy has made over the past year,” Newman said of the converted catcher. “He’s becoming a good outfielder. For a guy his size, he can run. He can throw and he can hit it over the fence, and he’s a tough guy who comes to play every day. We love him. We think he’s going to be a really good player.”
The Yankees have sent elite talent to Charleston before.
But even Newman agrees this group is special. He took the comparison back to Derek Jeter’s two South Atlantic League seasons in Greensboro. The Yankees captain played with Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte in 1992, and with Mariano Rivera in 1993.
“These kids,” Newman said of the 2012 RiverDogs, “are talented enough to win. But when you deal with kids that age, you’re not really surprised when they struggle. Youth is characterized by inconsistency. In our business, in the longer view, you just don’t want them going up and down like Dow Jones.”
With this Charleston roster, the Yankees have hedged their investments.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 and on Twitter @sapakoff.