Daniel Espino Is a Unicorn (Plus a Handful of Changes on The Board)

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Current work on the team-by-team prospect lists is being complemented by lots of live looks in Arizona as we work on the West Valley cluster of teams (Reds/Guardians/Dodgers/White Sox), so the info in those lists is fresh out of the oven. As I’ve been targeting teams with West Valley facilities who come east and talked to scouts on my side of town, some players have popped up this spring from clubs whose prospect lists we’ve already done, and I’m not wasting time adding them to their org lists just because others aren’t finished. Those changes are noted beneath some notes on Daniel Espino and are indicated on The Board’s “Trend” column, as they’re the only players to have “up” arrows at this stage.

On Saturday in Goodyear, I saw some of the most impressive stuff I’ve ever seen from a pitching prospect rocketing out of the hand of Espino, a 21-year-old Cleveland righty. In terms of my own in-person looks, his stuff over about three innings of work in a minor league spring game against Cincinnati — the Reds’ list will be next out the door here, by the way — ranked up there in sheer power and dominance with what I saw from Gerrit Cole in the 2011 Fall League, Stephen Strasburg’s first home start at Double-A Harrisburg (which was so heavily attended that the stadium sold out of food and suffered a brownout), and (hesitates to type the following) a Jacob deGrom start in Arizona last year. It was ridiculous enough that I felt compelled to move Espino up on the Top 100 — more on where and why in a minute — and write about him immediately.

Espino sat 98–100 mph for three innings, and while I was often too busy stuffing my eyeballs back into my skull to note the vertical movement on each pitch, several of his fastballs had between 20–23 inches of vertical break. His arm slot has changed since high school and is now more vertically oriented than before, helping create this kind of carry on his heater:

It took Espino about halfway through his second batter to find feel for his fastball, and after that he had no issues commanding it to either side of the plate, blowing it right past most of the hitters he faced, including Reds catcher Matheu Nelson, who led the NCAA in homers last year. More striking than the velocity itself is the ease with which Espino generates it. Even as he has become more and more muscular entering his twenties, he has maintained a freaky level of flexibility, which a Cleveland front office member told me he attained by stretching four times per day. These things help Espino reach and maintain an elite level of velocity.

In the context of this look (which was just three innings early in the year coming off several weeks of relative rest), seeing elite velocity from Espino is not all that shocking; most of his 2021 fastballs were in the 96–98 mph range, after all. What was most impressive and somewhat surprising was the depth and quality of his repertoire, as both his curveball and changeup, which he used a combined 7% of the time in 2021, flashed plus. His slider, meanwhile, bent in between 92–94 mph and had late, two-plane finish. It would be an above-average pitch were it simply in the low-to-mid-80s, but at this velocity, this is a 70-grade weapon, and Espino has consistent feel for locating it down and to his glove side. His curveball has 12–6 shape and plus depth and power, used during this appearance as a way of garnering called strikes. It has enough depth to have bat-missing utility below the zone and generate ground balls even when hitters figure it out in mid-air. He only threw a few changeups, all in the 90–92 mph range, but again I was struck by his feel for locating those in an area that was enticing to hitters. This pitch has bat-missing action as well:

Espino is bucking trends. The recent track record of high school pitching prospects, especially those who are already physically big and throwing very hard before their draft, is not good. He has been a workout warrior for years and was already sitting in the mid-to-upper-90s for long stretches during high school; I compared Espino to Brady Quinn at the time, worried he was getting too big too fast and was liable to stiffen up, and he’s even bigger and stronger now. But the note about his flexibility and drive to maintain it is a separator. On top of that, he has had very little in the way of health-related hiccups or velocity swoons and has performed at a high level on paper amid changes to his delivery (his arm action has also been shortened since high school).

I’m at a point where I think Espino is a unicorn of sorts, and I’m totally buying into his ability to look consistently like he did on Saturday. What would the buzz around him be like if we were talking about a 21-year-old sitting 99 with four potential plus pitches at Vanderbilt, and some of his sliders had been GIF’d? His stuff is comfortably better than Jack Leiter’s, and his command is too, and he’s further along the minor league ladder. His velocity and track record of health are better than those of recent No. 1 pick Casey Mize. In a typical draft, a college pitcher like Espino would be the heavy, heavy favorite to go first overall.

So where does he fit on the universal prospect continuum? His repertoire is very similar to that of Shane Baz, who has reached the majors but who also recently had an arthroscopic elbow surgery, and so they’re now stacked together on the Top 100. Part of this terrifies me, as Espino is perhaps still a couple of years from the big leagues, leaving plenty of time for things to go wrong as they have with so many pitching prospects before him. He doesn’t have to be added to the Guardians’ 40-man roster until after the 2023 season, and Cleveland has tended to handle prospect promotions in ways that maximize the length of team control rather than considering MLB readiness as the primary driver — a strategy enacted in response to budgetary restrictions imposed by ownership. But if the Guardians are in the thick of the Central race in July or August and Espino continues to look like he did on Saturday, he’s going to force the issue.

Beyond that, I’ve made two little tweaks to the Top 100. Josh Jung falls behind Corbin Carroll and CJ Abrams, two other star-level talents who are further along in recovery from shoulder injuries (Jung had surgery shortly after the Top 100 initially went live). His FV hasn’t changed, though. The same is true of Dodgers righty Bobby Miller, who has been sitting 99–102 this spring with a plus slider and changeup and moves up to 59th. He and Marlins righty Max Meyer (who are now back to back on the Top 100) feel like the two pitchers in their mid-20s who might find their way into the 55 FV tier within a few weeks due to a combination of stuff and proximity to the big leagues.

I also made a couple of additions to the Giants list: Ian Villers, Julio Rodriguez, and Mat Olsen. They’re three of a few San Francisco pitchers who have had velo spikes upon entry to camp, and on whom I have enough background — Rodriguez has been at the complex for a while, Villers went to Cal, Olsen to Central Arizona — to know they’ve changed. Their full scouting reports are now on the Giants list over on The Board. Apologies also to our editorial staff, which now has to deal with another Mat Olsen and Julio Rodriguez.

In other news, Rockies righty Riley Pint has unretired and been nails on the backfields. Injuries (oblique, forearm, shoulder) and wildness have made it difficult for the former top-five pick to develop at all, and he briefly retired before returning to the field for 2022 minor league spring training. He still has tantalizing stuff, sitting 95–98 with a bevy of plus-flashing secondaries, including a slider in the 88–91 mph range and an upper-80s changeup. There’s too much talent here to ignore completely and especially explosive upside if Pint gets a change of scenery.

Speaking of the Rockies, the little second baseman who they traded to Toronto as part of the Randal Grichuk deal, Adrian Pinto, has been added to the Blue Jays list. Scouts had a narrow window in which to scout him here in Arizona before the deal, but he made enough of an impression to prompt some unsolicited texts from scouts covering the Rockies who noted he was missing from their org list. Much more on him here, or over on The Board.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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MRDXolmember
8 months ago

Cleveland’s pitching dev is just crazy good, man. Also— seems like crazy flexibility is a huge driver of velocity, I recall similar stuff about Dylan Cease, who’s a yogi or something like that. Chris Sale is also like that but genetically so, he could reportedly scratch his eyebrows with his toes in high school.

Is flexibility -> power also true for hitters?

Left of Centerfield
8 months ago
Reply to  MRDXol

Yeah, it’s a bit strange that Cleveland’s been so great at the pitching dev but basically clueless on the hitting dev. Not sure what that’s about.

motleycrue84
8 months ago

Where we are at in 2022, it seems like teams have been able to adapt tech and advanced analytics to improve pitching dev more rapidly than hitting dev (so far). Cleveland is not alone in its ability to develop pitching but not hitting rn: Detroit is firmly in the same camp

Last edited 8 months ago by motleycrue84
MRDXolmember
8 months ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

the mize/skubal/manning trio are promising, but i think it’s a little early yet to say they’re ‘developed’. anyways they’ve got greene coming for position player dev… i’d include tork, but he’s like the most advanced bat drafted in a couple decades, he needs just about minimal dev input in the minors.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

Detroit is not an example of a team that develops starters especially well. It is an example of a team that acquires amateur pitching talent quite frequently. This is a different sort of intelligence, one that lies more at a strategic than a tactical level (if that makes sense).

casey jmember
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes it does. They stink often, then draft a talented person with the corresponding draft choice haha

motleycrue84
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree that Mize has been relatively stagnant but you don’t think Detroit developed Skubal or Manning? There’s a lot of work they did with Manning since HS although he hasn’t fully established himself yet and may be a #4 (HS pitching is a tough demographic). They’ve done a lot of work w Skubal too. Also, tork and Greene were arguably the best hit tools in their respective drafts I don’t think Detroit did anything to develop them further.

Last edited 7 months ago by motleycrue84
KwisatzHaderachmember
7 months ago
Reply to  motleycrue84

They didn’t do much to develop any of three until they got to work with Chris Fetter in the majors. Didn’t even get Manning throwing a slider despite literally everyone knowing he needed a hard breaking ball since the day he was drafted. However, they’ve pulled a lot of good off the radar arms, and completely overhauled their player development staff this offseason. Looking for things to start improving there rapidly.

casey jmember
7 months ago

Lindor developed in Cleveland, so did Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes isnt doing too bad. I suppose they arent that good at developing hitters if you only count the ones who didn’t develop as planned and you give no credit to the ones who do.

Left of Centerfield
7 months ago
Reply to  casey j

Reyes developed with the Padres, not with Cleveland. Lindor was back in 2015, Ramirez broke out in 2016. Who have they developed since? And before that, you have to go back to something like 2011 with Jason Kipnis.

Meanwhile, since 2018 only, they’ve developed an entire starting rotation: Bieber, Civale, Plesac, Quantrill, and McKenzie.

So yeah, I’m going to stick with my original statement.

fjtorres
7 months ago

Cleveland does develop hitters…
…just not outfielders.
Their specialty this past decade is fourth outfielders.

They do well with ss and 3B, adequately with 2B.

More seriosly: it’s a function of their draft preferences. They start good but stall by AA. They need to adjust their OF instruction.