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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Long-term deal for Aaron Hicks gives Yankees' top prospect Estevan Florial time to develop 

Estevan Florial of the Yankees celebrates with teammates

Estevan Florial of the Yankees celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the second inning against the Rays during a Grapefruit League spring training game at Charlotte Sports Park on Sunday in Port Charlotte, Fla. Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

TAMPA, Fla. — On most nights this season, the Yankees intend to start as many as five homegrown players, perhaps six if you count Luis Severino’s turn in the rotation. But one of the few spots where the future apparently can wait is centerfield, as Aaron Hicks just re-upped at $70 million to occupy the position for the next seven years.

That specific part of the Yankees’ future goes by the name of Estevan Florial, currently the No. 1 prospect in the organization, as ranked by Baseball America, after Justus Sheffield was dealt to the Mariners last November in the James Paxton swap. Florial, 21, already has played in the first two Grapefruit League games and was scheduled to start the third before Tuesday’s matinee against the Phillies was rained out at Steinbrenner Field.

The Yankees’ plan this spring is to force-feed him as much as possible with the major-leaguers before he’s re-assigned next month, most likely to High-A Tampa, the same place he finished last year after missing nearly 2 1/2 months with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist. Recovering from that wrist surgery seemed to put the brakes on his development, as Florial had a pedestrian slash of .255/.354/.361 over those 75 games, with three homers, three triples and 11 stolen bases.

But the Yankees are confident the tools are still there, and for anyone that watches Florial this spring, it’s not hard to see why. The vicious lefty swing, the loud contact, the standout speed, the cannon arm. The entire package seems intact, even if Florial has yet to display them all consistently at the lower levels. He’s going to get an extensive chance to do so in the Grapefruit League, however, and the Yankees believe it can serve as a springboard in climbing the minor-league rungs.

“He can move fast,” said Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations. “I’m telling you. If it clicks for him, he can go pretty fast.”

That’s the hope anyway, but there is no need to rush. The Yankees’ decision to lock up Hicks — who was going to be a free agent at the end of this season — not only affords them the luxury of time with Florial, they also can keep him as an attractive trade chip, say for another front-line starting pitcher at some point.

If Florial had been further along the learning curve, maybe Brian Cashman would have thought differently about securing Hicks long-term. But you never can have enough high-caliber assets down below, and looking a few years ahead, Hicks is entering his 30s, so the Yankees could always move him over to a corner spot with Florial’s younger legs in center.

“He’s got as high a ceiling as just about anybody in that clubhouse,” said manager Aaron Boone, who watched Florial spray line drives Tuesday during pregame batting practice. “And he looks the part.”

Boone was speaking of Florial’s muscular build, a 6-1 bundle of coiled energy. Everything he does just appears to be at a faster clip, and Florial stole a pair of bases Sunday against the Rays’ strong-armed catcher Mike Zunino. The Yankees’ challenge is harnessing all of that raw talent, a project that seems to be off to a promising start so far.

“He’s got to develop in all these areas,” Naehring said. “But what’s interesting is when you’re standing in my shoes, I’ve got six boxes I think he’s capable of checking. Even if he checks four of the six, he’s still a damn good player in the major leagues.”

The goal, of course, is all six. And whether he ultimately does that for the Yankees or another club still feels like something that needs a while before it’s figured out. What’s encouraging about Florial is that his head is in the right place, even as the Yankees determine where the rest of him belongs in the not-too-distant future.

“I really think his attitude, his work ethic, and all those things are going to be something that helps him get finished off,” Naehring said. “Those type of guys, I think you can push, because even when they struggle, they find a way to make some adjustments and start being successful.

“There’s others that may be a little bit more sensitive and not be able to handle adversity as well. Those are the guys that you got to take baby steps with. The bottom line is that I hope he’s got some big numbers and shows improvement wherever he ends up.”

For now, it looks like centerfield in the Bronx won’t be anytime soon, if at all.

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