BRADENTON, Fla. — A veteran American League scout who has been around long enough to have seen everything twice had never seen this.
Scouting the Yankees’ low Class A Charleston club last season, he watched outfield prospect Estevan Florial after a play on the bases in which he was called out.
“He’s flat on his back,” the scout recalled. “Then it seemed in one motion he just kind of kicked his legs [forward] and jumped to his feet. Flat on his back. Never seen it.”
By now, ardent Yankees fans, and even casual ones, likely have heard of Florial, a 6-1, 185-pound centerfield prospect whom the Yankees signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2015.
He ended last season with high Class A Tampa — he hit a combined .298 with an .850 OPS, 13 homers and 23 doubles in 110 games between Charleston and Tampa — and is considered by many as the No. 2 prospect in the organization behind infielder Gleyber Torres.
Florial needs to cut down on the strikeouts — he struck out 148 times last season in 420 at-bats — but the tools are undeniable, as is the excitement surrounding the 20-year-old.
While general manager Brian Cashman typically says “no one is untouchable,” one opposing team executive said his sense with Florial is “he’s as close as it gets to untouchable” for the Yankees.
Florial, who started in centerfield Saturday in the Yankees’ 4-1 victory over the Pirates and went 1-for-3 with a triple and two strikeouts, has talent evaluators from the Yankees and rival teams gushing.
“Athletically,” one opposing team scout said, “he reminds me of a combination of Ken Griffey Jr. and Deion Sanders. Again, that’s athletically. Not projecting that for him, but the skill set is something.”
Another rival talent evaluator wouldn’t quite call Florial a five-tool prospect but said he’s “probably as close as I’ve got to it. He could be a game-changer. He’s so young, too.”
The Yankees don’t want to put that kind of pressure on Florial, but they’re not hiding their enthusiasm, either.
“He’s got the skills to be an above-average centerfielder. Offensively, he’s got very special hands. He’s got raw power in all directions,” said vice president of baseball operation Tim Naehring, who watched Florial extensively last season. “And you have the other part, on the basepaths. He’s got a chance to steal some bases, put pressure on the defense going first to third. Bottom line is he’s just young.”
The Yankees annually invite a handful of their top prospects — some that are highly rated and some that are more under the radar — to spring training so they can get a taste of the big leagues. The gregarious Florial, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and speaks English, Spanish and Creole, has fit right in. He’s been at ease with reporters and his smile is constant with teammates.
“There’s been individuals in the past that were rewarded with big-league camp and then all of a sudden, there was that sense of entitlement,” Naehring said. “This kid has such a great attitude. He comes in, wants to learn. Listens to the veteran-type guys, works with [outfield coach Reggie Willits] on all the defensive things. He’s a joy to be around. And there’s a sense of urgency every day, which I love. He wants to get better.”
Florial is likely to start the season with Tampa so, as Aaron Boone said, he’s “a ways away” from the major leagues. That said, according to Boone, Florial “looks the part” of a big-leaguer.
“There’s just life to everything that he does,” Boone said. “There’s just a calm grace to the way he plays the game. There’s no panic, really. He’s someone me and the coaches get excited — ‘oh, Flo’s going in.’ Just excited to see what he can do.”