On the list of things I expected from the Cardinals this offseason, acquiring another fringe outfielder was not one of them. The Cardinals did just trade two outfielders to be fair, but they traded them away because of a glut (and a prime opportunity arose to acquire a top 50 pitching prospect). But acquiring another outfielder would seem to be an odd decision nonetheless, especially with the impending addition of Dylan Carlson whenever the Cards want to bring him to the majors. So who is Austin Dean and why make this trade?
Dean was the 55th ranked high school prospect when he committed to play for the Texas Longhorns as a 1B: “Dean has quick hands and strength, which leads to above-average raw power. He does it with an unorthodox swing and there are, as a result, some holes, but when he makes contact, it’s hard. He goes all-out at all times, which allows him to use his solid average speed well. He’s likely limited to first base or maybe left field at the next level because of fringy defensive tools. His size, bat speed and power potential lead to a Jonny Gomes comparison and the team that takes him will hope he lives up to that billing.”
Aside from the fact that I don’t think this writer has ever actually looked at Jonny Gomes stats - the phrase “I hope he turns into Jonny Gomes” has not been uttered since 2005 - but it’s actually an apt comparison. Which I don’t want my hitting prospects to turn into Jonny Gomes when I draft them, but if you look at his career page, he has a few seasons where he hits the crap out of the ball.
Being in high school, Dean was promoted one level every year and not a bit more aggressively than that. He hit his first real roadblock where most Cardinals hitting prospects seem to: Florida State League. But his line was deceptively better than average, as also is wont to happen, even with a .098 ISO. His struggles continued in AA, which he had to repeat. In his second stop at AA, he got injured in April and didn’t return until July. His line wasn’t really any more impressive than the year before (at least scouting the stat line wise), but he had a .333 BABIP and not a .283 BABIP, which is why he started 2018 at AA for a third time.
He wasn’t there long. In 22 games, he destroyed the hell out of the ball with a 217 wRC+, which of course came with a high BABIP, but also came with a 8% K rate and a .235 ISO. His momentum didn’t stop there either, with a 132 wRC+ in 358 AAA PAs. His power declined massively to .149 ISO, but he improved his BB rate to 9% and his K rate was a very low 13.2%. He finished out the season in the majors, playing in 34 games, and disappointing with a 78 wRC+ (with a .241 BABIP)
Last year, at 25, he was better in AAA than he was the year before and worse in the majors. In 73 games, he batted .337/.401/.635 for a 146 wRC+. In the majors, he got worse in every way except for ISO. He walked at a low rate (4.8%), struck out too much (24.9%) and again had a below average BABIP (.270). This is your standard AAAA player profile here.
Except clearly the Cardinals didn’t think so, so let’s delve deeper. If you think I’m here to tell you his MLB Statcast data is good, well sorry to disappoint. His xwOBA (.307) is better than his actual wOBA (.278), but he’s still a below average hitter. I will note an interesting thing that happened, that I’m sure the Cardinals will try to fix. In his first year, he had a launch angle of 14.6, which is pretty much average (147th). Last year, it dropped to 9.1, which was 357th in the majors. What does this mean? Well, a launch angle of less than 10 degrees is generally considered to result in a groundball, and this guy is supposed to be a power hitter of some sort. So there’s some launch angle shenanigans the Cards may be able to fix there.
The other thing one has to notice about Dean is his absolutely absurd defensive numbers. I do not mean this in a positive way. In the corners, he’s been a -13.5 UZR/150 defender, which is worse than Jose Martinez actually. But here’s the thing and I know it’s going to annoy some people: throw these numbers out. It’s barely half a season. Also, in my research on Martinez’s expected defense in the past, I found that over a larger sample, realistically, the worst you get is about a -10 defender. So that’s my floor when doing these things.
Speed isn’t everything, but Dean isn’t slow. His sprint speed ranked 203rd out of 568 eligible players. That’s obviously not fast either, but Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong are below him. (If you think that’s slow for Wong, he’s 70th in HP to 1B, so being left-handed helps). Now out of high school at least, he was a 1B, so average speed plus poor instincts could lead to being a bad defender, and honestly I doubt he’s a good or even average defender, but I just wouldn’t rush to judgement on his defense yet.
So a bat first corner outfield type who hasn’t shown enough power for a bat first guy who also is bad at defense? Yes, this is Jose Martinez redux. The difference? Baserunning and potentially defense. Martinez was 421st in sprint speed, so Dean is quite a bit faster than Martinez, so my default assumption is that he’s definitely better on defense than him despite the SSS numbers. (If I had to guess, -5 defender). And his launch angle problems present a classic change of scenery guy narrative.
Lastly, we’re going full optimism here, but Dean was a very different hitter at the end of the year. Starting on August 28th, the Marlins gave Dean 93 PAs for the rest of the season: he hit .250/.315/.500 for a 110 wRC+. He had a .250 ISO and a .298 BABIP for that line. 13 of his 20 extra base hits were in that last stretch of PAs.
So maybe there’s something there. And it’s the offseason, so I’m here to tell you there absolutely is something there. Place your bets, but I think he has now replaced Justin Williams as the odds on favorite for the “Random guy to have a 2+ WAR season that nobody predicted” award, otherwise known as the Aledmys Diaz award.