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Bulletproof ex-Yankee could match Barry Bonds’ stat for SF Giants

Thairo Estrada is the San Francisco Giants' stolen base leader. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Thairo Estrada is blossoming into one of the best middle infielders in baseball, just as he was supposed to, but with a different outfit.

A onetime top New York Yankees prospect, Estrada suffered a gunshot wound to his leg, then was unceremoniously designated for assignment after just 61 major league games. The San Francisco Giants have reaped the benefits.

“Everybody wants to play for the Yankees. They want to be signed by the Yankees,” Estrada said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “There are a lot of great players that have worn the pinstripes, and there are a lot of great players that wear them right now. I had an opportunity to be there, and I’m never gonna forget it.”

Being designated for assignment in favor of veteran and fellow Venezuelan Rougned Odor in early 2021 was a difficult pill for Estrada to swallow at first. He was signed by the Yankees in 2012 and debuted with them in 2019.

Thairo Estrada has excelled at both shortstop and second base for the San Francisco Giants. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“At the moment, it was hard. When you’re young and inexperienced, you don’t understand that this is a business,” he said. “Now that I’m a grown man and I have more experience, I realize that this is just a business and that things happen. I’m living in the present, and I’m just happy to be part of the Giants.”

The journey for any international signee is a difficult one. Yes, the Yankees gave Estrada a $49,000 signing bonus as a 16-year-old, but he had to navigate the world of professional baseball at an age when most would be in high school. The elevated status also made him a recognizable face in Venezuela, a country in the midst of a serious economic crisis.

In January 2018, Estrada and his wife were at a restaurant in his hometown of Bejuma, in the northern Venezuelan state of Carabobo. A pair of teenagers approached him, demanding money and his cell phone. The young robbers shot him, and a bullet entered his hip. It stayed there for six months after doctors in Venezuela performing the initial surgery to remove it damaged his thigh. He even played 18 minor league games with the bullet still inside of him before suffering a back injury. The bullet was then removed while he was on the injured list.

The close call left Estrada questioning his safety in his home country. He now makes his offseason home in Tampa, along with his entire family, though he does return to visit his extended family in Venezuela.

The way Estrada has played so far in 2023, there’s a good chance he won’t be in Florida for the All-Star Break. Instead, he may be on the opposite end of the country, representing the Giants in the All-Star Game in Seattle.

With 10 stolen bases and six home runs in the Giants’ first 36 games in 2023, he has a real chance to be the team’s first 30-30 player since Barry Bonds did so in 1997.

“My whole approach to the season has been going day-to-day,” Estrada said. “I’m just trying to make sure I contribute to team wins.”

Since arriving in San Francisco in a 2021 trade for cash considerations, Estrada has blossomed into the everyday player he was expected to be. While he’s the Giants’ primary second baseman, he’s made cameos at shortstop, third base and even brief moments at all three outfield positions. He homered seven times in just 132 plate appearances in 2021, then went deep 14 times and swiped 21 bags in 2022, a season in which he cemented himself as an everyday player. Estrada started in 129 games and came in off the bench in 11 more, and he’s off to a monstrous start in 2023.

Thairo Estrada has a chance to record the first 30-30 season for the San Francisco Giants since Barry Bonds did so in 1997. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Just over a month into his age-27 season, he’s in one of the top two spots on the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard at the position on both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, the two main authorities for the metric.

Entering the May 9 game against the Washington Nationals, the Venezuelan spark plug is one home run shy of J.D. Davis and LaMonte Wade Jr. for the team lead, and his 10 steals are more than triple anyone else’s on the roster. While rule changes have fueled a rise in stolen bases across the league, Estrada’s not new to the art.

“Everybody that has followed my career knows that I have been very aggressive on the bases,” he said. “They know that I have speed, so they know that I’m trying to get that extra base and they know that I run really hard. That’s just the way that I play.”

Ever since Brandon Crawford suffered a calf strain at the end of April, Estrada has slid over to shortstop and been every bit as productive as he was at second base. In a three-game weekend set against the Milwaukee Brewers, he went 5-for-12 with a pair of homers, raising his batting average to .346 and his OPS (on-base plus slugging) to .912.

His success is apparent when looking at the numbers on the back of a baseball card or on a site like FanGraphs. But it’s even more impressive when considering his past.