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Yankees prospects: How does Estevan Florial have this much helium?

Looking into how one of the Yankees’ best prospects came out of nowhere.

MiLB: AUG 13 Florida State League - Mets at Yankees Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Super Bowl over, the clock is ticking to pitchers and catchers reporting, and then Opening Day. Of course there is no free agent news to report, because it is truly the worst offseason in memory, but at least we have our prospect discussion. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus released their own lists, with most of the same Yankees filling it out. There was one prospect that I really wanted to focus on, though, largely because he keeps climbing and climbing on every list we see: Estevan Florial.

Florial was in fact not always named Estevan Florial. When registering for school in the Domincan Republic, he assumed the name Haniel de Oleo, which seemed like no issue as the July 2, 2014 signing period approached. Then MLB did a background check. They discovered a Haitian birth certificate with a different birthday, so he was forced to sign a year later and at a significant discount; the Yankees nabbed him for $200,000 when he likely would have gone for over $2 million otherwise.

At the time of his signing, Florial’s main tools were his arm and speed. These two easily translatable skills would still require the elusive bat to come around for him to be a potential star. The funny thing, and the reason for this piece, is that the consensus was that he was a non-prospect until about eight months ago.

After mashing at Rookie-level and subsequently getting promoted to High-A Tampa by 2016, I would say organizational buzz preceded the public clamor. This was from Joel Sherman in February of 2016:

“Every year in camp, I ask Yankee executives to tell me the name of someone in the organization whom I do not know now, but will in six months. On the day spring camp opened, Florial’s name was near unanimous.”

Here was an interview Sweeny Murti had with Gary Denbo just one month later:

One [player to watch] is Florial. He’s an outfielder we signed last year from Haiti... He’s an exciting young player. He’s a centerfielder and I think he’s going to be able to stay in center field. He’s an athlete, runs well, throws well, hits for power at a young age with a loose swing that doesn’t require a whole lot of effort, which is very impressive for a player that age.”

There was pretty much no talk of him from then on until about midway through last season, when he surfaced in trade talks regarding Sonny Gray. The Yankees landed Gray, but much to the chagrin of Billy Beane, they were able to hold on to Florial, trading Jorge Mateo, Dustin Fowler, and James Kaprielian instead. At that point the baseball community paid attention; if a well-respected executive places Florial right under Gleyber Torres, you should pay attention.

In October, our friends at Minor League Ball summed up what the industry missed:

“I had always believed in his other tools being loud but I was so skeptical of his hit tool coming around... The biggest difference in between a guy who hit .225 in the Appy League to being a guy who hit .298 across both levels of A ball as a teenager has been an improved approach... This year he hit over .400 BABIP at both stops as he decreased his ground ball rate slightly(to 55.6%) and doubled up on his line drive rate(10.3% in 2016 to 20% this year). He’s made some adjustments that have allowed him to make better, harder contact and it’s really translated in his production.”

That’s how you go from a raw, toolsy center fielder with speed and a great arm to a player with those skills plus an in-game hit tool and power. That’s when the rankings came in, and they gave the type of praise you now typically see from top prospects lists, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t qualified with criticism. He made it to 79th on FanGraphs’ new list, and Eric Longenhagen said that “contact ability” is the only thing holding him from his “sky-high ceiling.” He also made it to as high as 26th on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101, and 44th on MLB.com, and 38th on Baseball America.

Helium prospects are fascinating, because in a way you can see that jump in any young player. There are so many speedy center fielders who can stick with the glove, but only a handful jump up the lists. That out-of-nowhere hit tool can only be the consequence of endowed talent and what has been a hot streak for the Yankees’ player development staff.

Keith Law was the only writer to exclude Florial from his list, largely because of the same reasoning with approach and contact skills. Yet, we’ve heard this song before. Both Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge dealt with inconsistent results, and Didi Gregorius had a dead bat until he put on the pinstripes. It doesn’t mean it’s sure-fire—far from it—but it’s clear the Yankees have found something in the procurement and development of elite bats. Florial is on the lists, and he’s at the top of the requests in trade talks. If he irons out issues with contact ability in 2018, that helium will become jet fuel.