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Another five-tool outfield prospect may be closer than Yankees fans thought

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Esteven Florial might be putting it all together at the exact right time.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

In baseball, as in life, timing is everything. It is the difference between fouling a ball straight back and crushing a monstrous dinger to dead center. Writ large, if your timing is good, you can rejuvenate your prospect stock at the exact right time that your organization is getting subpar production from almost all its big-league outfielders. If your timing is excellent, all of that unfolds while you are already on a 40-man roster bereft of outfield depth, playing for an organization whose mission statement is to win.

Estevan Florial has been in the Yankees’ system for what seems like forever, and fans who keep track of the farm system have been dreaming on his ceiling for what seems like forever. His 2017 season displayed all five of his tools, when he hit .298/.372/.850 and stole 23 bases in A-ball. Florial followed that up by raking in the Arizona Fall League as a 19-year-old — .286/.383/.414 in 19 games against mostly-older competition.

Accordingly, Florial’s prospect stock skyrocketed. On the eve of the 2018 season, Baseball Prospectus ranked Florial the 26th-best prospect in baseball, Baseball America slotted him in at #38, and MLB.com graded him at #44.

Between then and the 2021 season, however, Florial’s stock has dropped considerably. Injuries have been Florial’s bugaboo, as the talented young man (still only 23) has had considerable trouble staying healthy. In 2018, he required hamate surgery that caused him to miss considerable time. In 2019, he broke his wrist during spring training. All told, Florial only played 158 games combined in his ages 20 and 21 seasons, missing important development time.

Florial managed to avoid the injury bug in 2020, only to lose another season to the pandemic that brought the world to its knees. Admittedly, he got time in at the alternate site and even made his MLB debut in a brief cameo, but it was still the third straight year that he was unable to put together a full season of competitive baseball. By all accounts, Florial acquitted himself well at the alternate site, showed off legitimate power, and earned praise from the organization.

Despite that acclaim, the main concern about Florial’s game – his propensity to swing and miss – remained as 2021 approached. In his most recent action, during the 2020 Dominican Winter League, Florial struck out 17 times in 50 at-bats, though he did notch a .793 OPS.

Factors other than injury have affected perceptions of Florial. I suspect that the amount of time he has been a prospect has worked against him, and that “prospect fatigue” has set in as injuries and a pandemic stagnated his progression through the Yankees system while recent draftees and prospect signings stole some thunder.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ farm system also has a new five-tool outfielder. In July 2019, the Yankees signed 16-year-old wunderkind Mickey Mantle Trout Mays DiMaggio … er, I mean Jasson Dominguez. The Yankees paid him $5 million to sign, and fans have been dreaming big on him ever since he inked his deal (before, actually).

So on Opening Day 2021, despite starting the season at Double-A with the Somerset Patriots, it honestly seemed like Florial had a tough road to hoe to progress to the show. Concerns about his hit tool persisted. Furthermore, he was blocked by what seemed like a deep and talented stable of outfielders.

Then, something happened to start the 2021 season. In an admittedly miniscule sample size, Florial cut down on his K%, fanning only nine times in 35 at-bats with Somerset. Meanwhile, his power was on full display, as he mashed four home runs in nine games. Late last week, the Yankees promoted Florial to Triple-A, putting him on the cusp of the big leagues.

Meanwhile, as Florial’s star has ascended again, the Yankees’ outfield has been atrocious outside of Aaron Judge. Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Clint Frazier have all struggled mightily at the plate. Hicks has been unable to stay healthy, and Frazier has also been inconsistent at bat and an … adventure on the bases. The organization’s depth has eroded as well after the Yanks dealt Mike Tauchman to the Giants for lefty Wandy Peralta. This has left Florial as the only healthy outfielder on the 40-man roster who is not currently on the big-league club.

None of this is to suggest that Florial is imminent for the Yankees’ 25-man roster. He still needs development, considering he missed the majority of the last three seasons of baseball. Still only 23 years old, an extended stint at Triple-A will likely serve him well rather than hustling him to the Yankees to likely play as the fourth outfielder, even with Hicks’ absence.

For a player who MLB.com ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the Yankees’ system during the off-season, though, Florial is considerably closer to the majors than he was a couple of months ago. Whether his big-league time is spent with the Yankees is perhaps up in the air. If Florial continues to progress he may turn himself into a bona fide trade chip if Brian Cashman decides to go big-game hunting nearer the trade deadline. If he remains in the organization, maybe he is patrolling Yankee Stadium sooner than anyone thought possible a few months ago.

Yankees fans who pay attention to the farm system got used to dreaming big on Florial’s potential after his 2017 season. In 2021, it looks more likely than at any point since then that he may reach his tantalizing ceiling as a ballplayer.