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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Thairo Estrada

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Estrada struggled in the shortened season and will have to earn his playing time in 2021.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Things were looking up for Thairo Estrada following the 2017 season. The then 20-year-old was coming off a solid campaign with Double-A Trenton, and the Yankees added him to the 40-man roster in order to protect him in the Rule-5 draft. While not an elite infield prospect like Gleyber Torres, Estrada looked to be well on his way to contributing over the next few years with the big-league team.

In 2018 came the news that Estrada was recovering after being shot during a robbery attempt in his native Venezuela. Estrada actually returned by late April but only played 18 games before wrist and back injuries shut him down for the year. He also underwent the surgery he needed to have the bullet removed, which had not happened earlier on. Since that moment Estrada has struggled to find consistent at-bats and carve out a niche at the major league level. 2021 will be a big year for Estrada as he will need to convince the Yankees that his bat can play at the major league level..

2020 Stats: 52 PA, .167/.231/.229, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 36.5 K%, 1.9 BB%, 28 wRC+, -0.2 WAR

2021 ZiPS Projections: 361 PA, .234/.277/.355, 8 HR, 34 RBI, 23.3 K%, 3.9 BB%, 66 wRC+, 0.2 WAR

Estrada took a step back across the board in 2020, but the small sample size and lack of regular at-bats are factors. Especially concerning was his 36.5 percent strikeout rate that reflected a 15-percent increase from his 2019 showing. The elevated strikeout rate also came with weaker contact. Estrada seemed to find some power in 2019 hitting, 11 home runs in just 95 combined games between the majors and minors. That power evaporated in 2020, as he hit just one home run and his slugging percentage dropped by over 200 points at the major league level.

Corresponding with the lack of power are two underlying metrics that help show where his bat went wrong. His average exit velocity decrease by five mph, and his launch angle decrease by over four degrees. Another very concerning trend for the Yankees is that Estrada’s speed decreased fell from the 74th percentile of major league players to just the 24th , per Statcast. That is the exact same percentile as catcher Kyle Higashioka.

His decrease in speed may have played a role in the Yankees regularly choosing Tyler Wade to man the shortstop position and remain ahead of Estrada in terms of playing time. Estrada has made just four of his 23 major league starts at shortstop, his main position coming through the lower minors.

A big part of Estrada’s value is tied to his defensive versatility. His best defensive metrics are at second base, which also represents his biggest major league sample size on defense. This coming season, he will have to prove that he can continue to play at least three infield positions and retain the ability to go to the outfield in a pinch. And no matter what his defense looks like, Estrada will have to hit if he is going to find his way onto the field.

Working in the Yankees’ favor is that Estrada retains a minor league option for 2021. The Yankees managed his assignments to the alternate training site so that he came up one day short of burning his last minor league option in 2020.

Barring a surprisingly impressive performance during spring training, or major league rosters expanding to 28 players again, it is likely that Thairo Estrada will spend much of the season with Triple-A Scranton. He will be looking to reestablish his bat, and show that he has the defensive tools to be a utility player or more at the major league level. His minor league option and defensive versatility will put him in the mix to be called up at any time during the year, but he is in need of a healthy season with regular at-bats.