TAMPA, Fla. — When the prospect rankers began unveiling their annual lists of baseball’s best up-and-comers, a common theme emerged regarding one of the New York Yankees‘ prized players.
Estevan Florial, long considered among the top talents in the Yankees’ farm system, had fallen in the eyes of national prognosticators. Rated by some to be a top-50 prospect in 2018, Florial found himself below that entering 2019.
ESPN’s Keith Law, troubled only in part by the more than two-month injury from a broken hamate bone Florial endured last year, again had him just outside of his top 100.
All of which raises the questions: Is the 21-year-old center fielder still a rising star? Has the flame around the Bombers’ former No. 1 prospect burned out?
The Yankees, for their part, say Florial is shining brighter than ever.
“He’s got as high a ceiling as just about anyone in that clubhouse,” manager Aaron Boone said earlier this spring. “Nothing’s changed there.”
Added veteran outfielder Brett Gardner: “As talented as he is, it’s not going to be long before we see him put it all together.
“He’s got a bright career ahead of him for sure.”
The proof of that, the Yankees believe, rests with how Florial has performed both this spring and last.
A year ago, the outfielder showcased his best asset — his speed — by racing around the bases to the tune of three triples in 21 spring training games. His range in the field caught attention, as did the work he put in behind the scenes.
Fast-forward to this spring, and the Yankees say they believe there’s even more reason for optimism.
Entering play this week, Florial had a .333 batting average with a .926 OPS, a home run, four RBIs and four stolen bases through only 10 spring training games. Although he still had seven strikeouts and only two walks, his pitch recognition — one area where he has struggled in the past — has generally improved.
“[I’m] trying to get more control of the strike zone,” Florial said at the start of the spring.
A prime example of that came on one swing Florial had last Thursday in a game against the Phillies in nearby Clearwater. With two on in the top of the sixth, he made a mid-swing adjustment to a pitch riding middle-in, and stroked a hard liner over the wall in left-center.
The three-run, opposite-field shot had the visitors dugout buzzing about the lefty’s sweet swing.
“I mean, wow. There is a short list of people who can hit a ball hard like that,” Boone said to reporters after that game. “I told that to Reggie Jackson on the bench.”
Jackson, according to Boone, turned to the manager and said he knew that list was short — because the Hall of Famer was on the list.
Another Yankees legend, former infielder Willie Randolph, has been similarly moved by what he has seen from Florial this spring. Randolph went so far as to call Florial a “young Bernie Williams” to the New York Post last week. Considering Williams had his No. 51 jersey retired four years ago, that’s not a bad comparison for the youngster to draw.
“The way he goes about his business, his work ethic, just his desire and his willingness to listen and to learn and get better, I don’t see many 20-, 21-year-old kids come through here that are that mature,” Gardner said.
That maturity manifests itself in the patience Florial exhibits. Days after the Yankees re-signed center fielder Aaron Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million extension, Florial was asked if he was nervous he might be considered a trade chip now. After all, the long-term investment in Hicks had to mean the Yankees saw little future for Florial, right?
“We love Hicks here. Who wouldn’t like to have Hicks on their ballclub?” Florial said. “For me, I’m blessed to have him next to me, so I can learn from him.”
A lower back injury has kept Hicks out much of the past two weeks, giving Florial more chances.
General manager Brian Cashman has been pondering whether Florial’s year should begin at Single-A Tampa (where he hit .255 with three homers, three triples, 27 RBIs and was 11-for-21 in stolen bases in an injury-shortened 75 games last year) or Double-A Trenton. If he begins at Double-A, it would be the highest level Florial has played in the Yankees’ organization.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, Florial has spent the past two springs as a non-roster invitee. In addition to showing off his power in this one, Florial has also been let loose on the basepaths.
In a game last week against Atlanta, Florial led off the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out an infield single. Two batters and two outs later, the wheels came out again.
After stealing second base, the speedster advanced to third on a passed ball. Then he scored on a wild pitch. Florial had manufactured a run in a way the powerful Yankees (who set a single-season home run record last season with 267) don’t often do.
These anecdotes — the three-run home run and the blistering baserunning speed leading to a score — are prime examples of why the Yankees remain high on Florial, even if others are lukewarm. “He doesn’t recognize pitches well enough to get to his tools. Florial has bat speed, power, running speed, athleticism, quick twitch and all the tools that glitter, but his ability to pick up pitch types is not good enough to put him into the top 100,” wrote Keith Law in January. Meanwhile, MLB.com’s prospect rankings saw him fall a dozen spots this year, from No. 45 to No. 57, and, after being ranked No. 38 last year by Baseball America, he slipped off their top 100 entirely.
Still, Boone likes what he sees: “His ceiling, it’s why he’s probably always considered the [Yankees’] No. 1 prospect. It’s [a] good reason. I remember first seeing him last year and one of the things that grabs you is just how physical he is. He’s good to look at. He looks the part. He’s tall, he’s built. Still obviously a very young man.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed in my eyes, because I remember being really impressed with the way he looks on a baseball field.”