Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Not A Prospect Yet (But Worth Watching): Thairo Estrada

(Courtesy of Baseball America)

We're now less than a calendar week from Prospect Week 2014.  To continue to whet your appetite and build anticipation towards what I'm sure will be the highlight of your 2014 (or at least your January 2014), it's time to take another look at a young player in the Yankee system who's just starting to scratch the surface of his prospect potential.

Changing it up a bit from the recent MLB draftees and going international today, back to the 2012 international free agent class when the Yankees flexed their monetary muscle for the final time before the new international spending pool limits were put into place.  Hidden beneath the higher-profile signings of that summer was a 16-year-old Venezuelan shortstop named Thairo Estrada.  He signed for relative chump and didn't draw a lot of interest or positive commentary from scouts, but his 2013 performance definitely turned a few heads.

That relative chump change was $49,000 to be exact, a figure that pales in comparison to the 6-figure bonsues guys like Miguel Andujar and Luis Severino signed for or the 7-figure bonus that Luis Torrens received.  Not much was known about Estrada at the time other than the fact that he was 5'11", slightly built, and a natural shortstop.  Baseball America described him as having "plus speed, fast hands and quick feet in the field".  Offensively, they tabbed him as "a line-drive hitter who has shown the ability to take the ball to the opposite field" and I have to think the general consensus was that he'd spent a year or 2 on the Yankees' DSL squad before making his American pro debut.

That didn't happen and instead a 17-year-old Estrada spent the entire 2013 season as the starting shortstop for the Yankees' Rookie GCL teams.  In 199 plate appearances over 50 games, Estrada hit .278/.350/.432 with 11 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 28 R scored, 17 RBI, 7 SB in 12 chances, and 30 K to 12 BB.  He flashed the plus speed and line drive hitting tendencies that early scouting reports referenced and drew some further praise from BA for his "excellent instincts" and "advanced" hitting approach for his age.  Estrada was ranked 20th on BA's Top 20 GCL Prospects list after the season, and in their write-up on him they summed up his offensive game by saying  "he has good bat control, makes plenty of contact and has a good hitting approach.”

So how legit is Estrada?  That's extremely hard to say based on 1 year of GCL ball, but the information out there on him certainly makes it seem like he's got the tools to be a good shortstop.  His defense is generally regarded as above-average thanks to his natural speed and athleticism.  Although I haven't read anything yet on his arm strength, it sounds like scouts view Estrada as capable of being an everyday shortstop down the road.  The phrase "for his age" is always a big disclaimer when evaluating young international prospects as hitters, but the fact that he drew enough walks to post a .350 OBP and hit with enough pop to post a SLG over .400 tells me that Estrada is working with some legit hitting tools.  As he gets older and his body fills out, maybe he adds a little more power to his game.  If he doesn't, his ability to go the other way should serve him well along with what should be improved plate discipline and pitch recognition skills over time.

It's easy to get lost in the lower level shuffle when bigger names like Gosuke Katoh and Abi Avelino have the type of years they had in the GCL and SS NY Penn Leagues.  They garnered most of the postseason prospect headlines and justifiably so.  At best, Thairo Estrada is a sleeper prospect below them right now but he should not be dismissed because of that.  He's got a solid all-around hitting game that he pairs with plus defensive skills at a premium position.  At age 17, he's got a lot of room to grow and could start to force his way into the discussion of top organizational middle infield prospects with another good year in 2014.

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