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Is Estevan Florial the New Centerfielder for the Cleveland Guardians?

Getting to know the newest Guardians outfielder

Toronto Blue Jays v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

For Guardians fans tired of getting one home run from starting centerfielder Myles Straw in two seasons, the acquisition of Estevan Florial may signify a change in approach for Cleveland toward the position.

The Guardians traded right-handed pitcher Cody Morris to the New York Yankees for left-handed hitting outfielder Estevan Florial. Morris is almost exactly 1 year older than Florial, Morris has faced 138 batters in the major leagues so far, and Florial has had 134 total major league plate appearances. In those limited outings, Morris has a disappointing 5.30 FIP and Florial has a thoroughly uninspiring 77 wRC+.

With this information in mind, I would caution both Guardians and Yankees fans from any premature conclusions of who has won this trade. For Cleveland fans worried about giving up pitching depth, remember that Morris has thrown a total of 153 innings over the past four years of his professional career. It is very, very likely that he is going to be a relief pitcher, and one who will not be pitching more than at most 50 appearances in a season given his extensive injury history. It wouldn’t surprise me if Morris is good in that role, but, even if he is, that kind of player has very limited value. Similarly, for Yankees fans sad that Florial never got a chance to sink or swim in the New York outfield, I’d remind them that his best Triple-A season (2023 as a 25-26 year old) still featured a 15.4 Swinging Strike Percentage. Chances are that Florial is best suited to be either a 4th outfielder who platoons with a right-handed bat or a full-time centerfielder who is solid but not spectacular with the glove and hits 7-9 in someone’s order. That’s the kind of player the Yankees can very easily acquire via free agency if need be and it’s almost certainly not worth a 40-man roster spot to New York hoping that Florial can turn into that.

Now, for the Guardians, on the other hand, a player like Florial makes a lot of sense given the expected cost it would require to get a similar one in free agency and the limited resources they have available. Say Cleveland wanted to sign a good centerfielder projected for over 90 wRC+? Well, Kevin Kiermaier (projected for 91 wRC+) just signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for $10.5 million. (Caveat: Kiermaier is an elite defender, and Cleveland will be incredibly lucky if Florial approaches his defensive value). Cleveland, due to ownership-imposed restrictions, doesn’t have that money to spend, especially when they are currently locked into a deal with the worst qualified hitter in MLB over the past two seasons in Straw. Florial at the league minimum and still with rookie eligibility is a simple way to add upside in centerfield without tying up too many scare payroll resources in one position. In swapping Morris for Florial, the Guardians lose a player with two options remaining and acquire a player with no options, so it would seem, barring a subsequent trade, they plan on playing Florial on the major league team.

In evaluating Estevan Florial himself, let’s begin by comparing his 2023 to players with whom Guardians’ fans are familiar:

Florial in Triple-A in 2023: 130 wRC+, 29.9/13.7 K/BB%, .281 ISO, 25/35 SB, 640+ innings played in centerfield, 15.4% SwStr%, 0.95 GB/FB rate, 42.8% Pull Rate
ML Plate Discipline %’s: O-Swing: 23.7, Z-Swing: 68.6, O-Contact: 31.7, Z-Contact: 71.6
1.002/.815 OPS vs. RHP/LHP in 2023 in Triple-A.

Will Benson in Triple-A in 2022 (he is a year younger than Florial): 153 wRC+, 22.7/18.7 K/BB%, .340 ISO, 16/20 SB, not a good option as a centerfielder, 8.7 SwStr%, 0.99 GB/FB rate, 41.7 Pull Rate.
ML Plate Discipline %’s: O-Swing: 20.2, Z-Swing: 64, O-Contact: 42.7, Z-Contact: 78.9, 1.003/.761 OPS vs RHP/LHP in Triple-A in 2022.

Oscar Gonzalez in Triple-A in 2023 (he is about 7 months younger than Florial): 98 wRC+, 22.9/5.2 K/BB%, .278 ISO, 2/0 SB, not a centerfield option, 15.3% SwStr%, 1.42 GB/FB rate, 41.5% Pull Rate
ML Plate Discipline %’s: O-Swing: 46.6, Z-Swing: 73, O-Contact: 62, Z-Contact: 83.2.
.804/.859 OPS vs. RHP/LHP in Triple-A in 2023

George Valera in Triple-A in 2023 (currently 3 and a half years younger than Florial): 84 wRC+, 27.2/16 K/BB%, .268 ISO, 1/3 SB, 13.1 SwStr%, 1.28 GB/FB rate, 39.8% Pull rate, .799/.534 OPS vs RHP/LHP

Jake Bauers with the Yankees in 2023 (a year and a half older than Florial): 89 wRC+, 34.9/8.9 K/BB%, .268 ISO, 3/5 SB, not a centerfielder, 13.7 SwStr%, 0.89 GB/FB rate, 44.7% pull-rate, 89/65 ML wRC+ vs RHP/LHP

Gabriel Arias with the Guardians in 2023 (roughly 2 and a half years younger than Florial): 74 wRC+, 32.8/8.1 K/BB%, .290 ISO, 3/7 SB, has not played centerfield, 19.5 SwStr%, 1.76 GB/FB rate, 33% pull rate
119/1 wRC+ vs RHP/LHP

Florial was DFA’d by the Yankees and passed through waivers in spring of 2023, but proceeded to have a solid 2023 season in Triple-A, earning him a brief look in New York and, now, causing enough intrigue for the Guardians to want to give him a look. In comparing Florial to some familiar Guardians, both past and current, a few observations stand out:

-Florial offers speed on the basepaths, being an aggressive baserunner who can get his team 20-25 steals.

-Florial has been scouted to be viable in centerfield, at -1 DRS and 1 OAA in centerfield for the Yankees in 156 ML innings in 2023. His arm grades at an 80 (if he plays center and Laureano plays right for the Guardians, no one is taking an extra base).

-Florial doesn’t chase often and has a solid eye at the plate. His issues as a hitter are making consistent enough contact on the few occasions when he does chase and especially when swinging in the strike zone. Guardians fans familiar with Gabriel Arias’s issues with making contact with pitches in the zone may be distressed to note that Arias is about 5% better at making in zone-contact and 8% better at out-of-zone contact than Florial has been. League average in-zone contact is 85%, so both players are well-below average. However, Florial has a career minor-league walk rate of 11.5% and Arias’s is only 7%, so Florial’s eye is clearly superior, overall.

-Florial is better at lifting the ball than everyone on this list except Jake Bauers. He’s about twice as good at doing it as is Gabriel Arias. He also pulls the ball at a solid rate (better than anyone on this list but Bauers), giving him a chance to make the most of his fly balls, especially with the short right field wall and porch at Progressive Field.

-Florial has solid splits in his minor league career and doesn’t look like a player who will be a liability vs. LHP.

If you were to evaluate each player on this list as hitters, the only player listed here who seems clearly a better bet to be a valiable major league player is Will Benson. And, Benson has been given few opportunities to play in center because it seems both Cleveland and Cincinnati have concluded that he is a corner outfielder. So, if your need is centerfield, Florial makes the most sense out of any of these options, representing the kinds of players Cleveland has been cycling through their outfield in recent years. It’s reasonable to conclude that this is damning Florial with faint praise, but, again, Cleveland’s financial limitations (whether rightly or wrongly imposed) frequently put them in the market with these types of options to address roster needs.

The big question is if Cleveland believes that Florial is a good defensive option in centerfield. I would not expect gold glove caliber play, but solidly above average with an exceptional arm to help him out of any jump or range issues with the 93 wRC+ Steamer is projecting for Florial (with about 16-18 home runs in full-time plate appearances) should be about 0.5-1.5 fWAR better than what Straw was able to offer in centerfield in 2023.

The Guardians will also get the upside of seeing if their contact-oriented hitting instruction can help maximize Florial’s bat and get him to more of his power, resulting in more pulled fly balls landing in Progressive Field’s seats.

As I’m writing this, I’m aware that Florial could be part of an additional deal, and maybe he ends up somewhere else for the 2024 season as the Guardians’ offseason plan continues to develop. But, as it is, I would advocate for the team handing Estevan Florial the keys to centerfield, if they believe in his defensive value there, and letting him sink or swim in the bottom third of the team’s lineup for the upcoming season. I like the trade of the pitching upside left in Cody Morris for the hitting (especially slugging) and speed/defense upside of Florial and I’m excited to root for his success in Cleveland.