The Rays always look for opportunities to turn low-risk investments into big potential gain. Could the Rays do just that by signing Jay Austin?
Austin, who turned 22 on August 10th, was a 2nd round pick by the Houston Astros back in 2008. Austin began his pro career that same season at Advanced Rookie Greeneville, but the results were not good as he managed just a .198/.277/.236 line in 55 games and 235 plate appearances. Austin managed just 6 extra-base hits, 4 doubles and 2 triples, and struck out 70 times versus 19 walks, but the one positive was that he stole 14 of 20 bases, showcasing his speed. In 2009, Austin moved up to Low-A Lexington and showed some signs of improvement, posting a .267/.320/.360 line, improving his strikeout to walk ratio to 78-31 and lacing 22 doubles, 6 triples, and 1 home run. He did, though, go just 23 for 36 in stolen bases. But in 2010 at age 19, Austin finally broke through. Moving up to High-A Lancaster, Austin posted a .261/.314/.414 line with 25 doubles, 13 triples, 10 homers, 59 RBI, and 54 of 74 stolen bases in 131 games and 587 plate appearances. He did strike out 126 times versus just 39 walks, but he was doing it all, hitting for power and putting his speed on display. Defensively, his fielding percentage was just decent at .983, but he notched 12 outfield assists. Austin was showing flashes of five-tool potential and he was a prospect that was generating buzz in the Astros organization.
In 2011, things drastically took a turn for the worst. After playing well in a full season at Lancaster, it seemed that he was ready for Double-A Corpus Christi. But instead, the Astros decided to send him back to Lancaster. His confidence was shattered, and the results were disastrous. Austin spent time at Lancaster and later back all the way down at Lexington and posted just a .242/.313/.336 line with 24 doubles, 4 triples, 3 homers, 53 RBI, 23 of 36 steals, and 105 strikeouts against 42 walks. Austin lack of plate discipline and instincts on the basepaths clearly cost him. But was his nightmare of the season simply a regression to the mean or a result of Austin being more tentative after the Astros challenged him to prove himself ready for Double-A? We’ll never know.
Austin suffered a broken hand in 2012 spring training and was out until mid-June. When he returned, he was back at Lexington and managed a .255/.356/.314 line with 1 double, 1 triple, 0 homers, 4 RBI, 5 of 5 steals, and 7 walks against 4 strikeouts in 15 games. But the Astros had seen enough, releasing Austin. Could the Rays be the team that gives him a second chance?
Austin has the type of speed the Rays love and throws in power potential, but the issues are his lack of plate discipline, limiting not just his on-base percentage but also his ability to utilize his power, and his lack of instincts for stealing bases. Austin came out of the 2008 draft as a toolsy centerfield prospect who was raw but featured five-tool potential. Four years later, Austin fits basically the same profile and even showed prolonged flashes of his ability back in 2010. Maybe a change of scenery is exactly what he needs to get back on the journey to harness his potential. Austin is a longshot at this point after completely faltering in 2011 and suffering a lost year in 2012, but the potential is still there. Austin will look for the right opportunity to reestablish himself, and that opportunity could come with the Rays. Wherever Austin ends up, it will be a low-risk deal for the signing team, and if Austin could somehow find the ability that once made him a top prospect, the reward could be significant. That sounds like exactly the type of move that the Rays could make.