Thairo Estrada | IF
Thairo Estrada signed out of Bejuma, Venezuela for the bargain price of $49,000 way back in November of 2012. He was relatively unheralded, as evidenced by both the price tag and how late he signed, and was something of an afterthought in a class in which the Yankees jumped all over three highly-rated prospects on day one of international free agency – Luis Torrens, Alex Palma, and Yancarlos Baez. The Yankees has $2.9 MM to spend in 2012, thanks to the new spending rules, and $2.75 MM went to those three prospects; Corby McCoy garnered the last $150,000 in mid-August. Estrada (and others) were signed much later, with the Yankees using one of their six $50,000 exemptions.
It’s interesting to bring up these names as a means to reinforce just how much of a crapshoot the process is. Torrens was a Rule 5 selection by the Padres last winter, and spent all of 2017 riding their bench (and hitting .163/.243/.203). Palma has yet to move beyond High-A, which he just reached for the first time this year. Baez shifted from shortstop to the mound this year, after batting .211/.278/.296 in 639 minor league plate appearances. And McCoy was released this summer, having never advanced beyond the Dominican Summer League.
And then there was Estrada.
Estrada made his professional debut in 2013, when he spent the entire short season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He batted .278/.350/.432 (132 wRC+) in 199 PA, and spent most of the season at shortstop (327.2 innings). He also dabbled at the keystone, starting nine games and logging 75 innings at the position. It wasn’t quite enough to put him on the radar – few summer league performances are, unless the prospect comes in with a significant amount of hype – but he did check-in at 20th on Baseball America‘s Top-20 GCL prospects list. There were five other Yankees on that list in Torrens, Miguel Andujar, Abiatal Avelino, Gosuke Katoh, and Luis Severino; quite the intriguing bunch.
Unfortunately, 2014 was a lost season for Estrada. He opened the year with Staten Island in the New York-Penn League, and he hit an empty .271/.348/.288 (96 wRC+) in 17 games at that level. He suffered a leg injury running the bases on July 4, and was shut down for six weeks. Estrada did make it back in time for a six game tune-up stint in the GCL, giving him a total of 90 PA that year.
And so it was back to Staten Island in 2015, and Estrada got right back on-track. He slashed .267/.338/.360 (108 wRC+) in 279 PA, with nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (30). He once again split his time between second and short, albeit with a heavy tilt towards the former this time around (45 games at second against 19 at short). This was not a knock on his defense, however; rather, it was a move made in deference to 2015 first-rounder Kyle Holder, who was drafted predominantly for his slick fielding.
Estrada headed to Low-A Charleston in 2016, where he would join a middle infield logjam with Holder, Katoh, and Hoy Jun Park. He spent just 35 games at the level, logging 21 games at second, 9 at third (his first professional experience there), and 5 at short, all the while putting up a solid .286/.324/.429 (116 wRC+) slash line. It became clear at this point (if it wasn’t already) that the Yankees were grooming him for a utility role.
He was promoted to High-A Tampa, and it was more of the same … in a good way. Estrada hit .292/.355/.375 (117 wRC+) in 351 PA at the level, with strong walk (8.3%) and strikeout (13.1%) rates. And he once again played all over, putting in 38 games at third, 36 at second, and 3 at short. This time, however, it was around a new crop of teammates, in Avelino, Jorge Mateo, and Gleyber Torres.
As a result of his flexibility and solid offense, Estrada popped-up on more radars than ever last off-season, earning the sleeper designation from countless outlets. He didn’t disappoint in 2017, slashing .301/.353/.392 (107 wRC+) in a full season at Double-A Trenton. Estrada continued to showcase a high-contact approach, posting a tiny 10.3% strikeout rate in 542 PA. And he served as the team’s primary shortstop, playing 90 games there, while continuing to spend time at second (23 games) and third (3). He was named to the Eastern League All-Star team for his efforts.
Estrada’s season continued into the late Fall, as he suited up for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. He hit .342/.381/.430 in 79 at-bats while serving as the team’s shortstop, and he was named to both the AFL Rising Stars game and the AFL All-Prospect Team, to boot.
Estrada is oftentimes described as the prototypical Venezuelan shortstop. He checks in at around 5’9″ and 180 pounds, and he has incredibly smooth actions on defense to go along with above-average range and enough arm for any position. His arm can be a bit erratic on longer throws, leading some to suggest that he is best-suited for second – but that aspect of his game has improved over time, and accuracy isn’t a problem on routine plays.
Speed might be the most interesting aspect of Estrada’s game, as he draws above-average to plus grades for his raw speed, and praise for his base-running instincts when taking the extra base. However, he has been a largely ineffective base-stealer, with 49 steals in 77 attempts – a 63.6% success rate. It was worse than ever in 2017, when he was successful in just 8 of 19 steal attempts. And the shape of his overall profile may hinge on his ability to translate that speed into better results.
If Estrada can continue to make a bunch of contact, draw walks, and play average defense at second, third, and short, he can be a valuable bench player. If he can do all of that and take advantage of his speed on the basepaths, he may well be a starting quality player.
Estrada was added to the team’s 40-man roster this off-season, and he will almost certainly reach the majors in a limited capacity at some point this season. He’ll otherwise spend most of the year at Triple-A; where he plays in the field will depend on what happens with Andujar, Torres, and Tyler Wade, but it seems likely that he’ll continue to bounce from position to position.
I’m a big believer in Estrada’s defense at short, and I have him comfortably within the Yankees top-ten prospects. With some refinement on the basepaths he could be a player that contributes in everything but power, and enough so that his lack of pop isn’t a drain on the lineup. He doesn’t quite have the feel of a player that the Yankees will trot out as a regular, given their depth in the middle infield and his lack of bat for third, but that doesn’t hinder his value in a vacuum.
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