Blue Jays’ Santiago Espinal turning heads with versatility, slick fielding

Toronto Blue Jays Teoscar Hernandez and Santiago Espinal (right) laugh after the MLB intrasquad baseball game in Toronto. (Carlos Osorio/CP)

TORONTO — Santiago Espinal has been watching a lot of Ozzie Smith videos lately. But he doesn’t have to tell you that. He’ll show you.

That’s Espinal making what has to be the defensive play of Toronto Blue Jays camp to this point. Playing way to the left of second base in an aggressive shift against Blue Jays prospect Jordan Groshans, Espinal sprinted to the bag on a ground ball, took a feed from Cavan Biggio on his way, and made an acrobatic jump throw to first to complete a double play that would fit right in on The Wizard’s highlight reel.

“We practice double plays on the shift. But not plays like that,” he says. “That play, it just came out of nowhere. We planned it and it came out good.”

Yes, they planned it. Two days earlier, as they were taking ground balls in the shift, Espinal told Biggio that if that very situation arose he was going to go for it. And he thought he had a good chance of pulling it off.

“I told him, ‘Hey, listen, if this happens, I’m going to run as fast as I can to second and we’re going to turn this double play,’” Espinal says. “It’ll sound impossible. But we can make it.”

It’s far from the only impressive play Espinal’s made during camp over the past couple weeks, and throughout spring training a few months prior. Every time Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo looks up, he sees the 25-year-old infielder doing something he likes.

“I’ve seen this kid just play great everywhere we put him,” Montoyo says. “I like how he plays. I like his at-bats. He’s a good player. I like him a lot. And a great teammate, also, for a young guy like that.”

With a 30-man roster on opening day and some question regarding the status of infielder Brandon Drury, who is currently on the injured list for an undisclosed reason and has yet to take the field or even be spotted in Toronto, there’s a very real lane for Espinal to make his first major-league roster next week when the Blue Jays open the regular season against the Tampa Bay Rays.

And he wouldn’t necessarily have to play on the infield. At Espinal’s intake meeting with Blue Jays staff at the beginning of spring training, he told his coaches he’d play anywhere they wanted him to play. First, second, short, third, left, centre, right — wherever. And if they really needed him to strap on a chest protector, he could probably figure it out.

“I feel comfortable playing any position,” he says. “Wherever they want me to help the team win a World Series, I’m here for it.”

Every day, Espinal cycles around the infield during batting practice, taking ground balls at second, third and shortstop. He hasn’t been getting regular work in the outfield, but he’s confident he could run out there and hold his own if needed, as he did making 12 starts in centre field for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats last season.

That versatility is increasingly valuable in today’s game and the Blue Jays would no doubt like to start featuring more of it on their big-league roster. Cavan Biggio can move around the diamond. Drury can, too. Austin Martin might someday be the kind of player who suits up at a different position every night. Pair that versatility with a big-league capable bat and a manager has a real weapon to deploy.

Just look at the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have set the standard in recent years for position-less baseball. Kike Hernandez started at seven different spots last season. Chris Taylor started at six. Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo each made more than 20 starts at three. That versatility opens up so many more options for a club when setting its lineup.

You can field a defence customized to the ground ball or fly ball propensity of your starting pitcher. You can counteract the pull or spray tendencies of the opposition’s lineup. You can maximize your bench, moving puzzle pieces around to make impact substitutions late in games without sacrificing a key bat or an important fielder from your lineup.

Plus, for the Dodgers, positions are merely suggestions. You have to put one next to each guy’s name on the lineup card, so they do. But once the players are on the field, they’re liable to end up standing anywhere. No team shifted more than the Dodgers last season, who employed one in more than half of the plate appearances they faced. The Blue Jays, by way of comparison, used a shift against only 28.5 per cent of plate appearances, which was still in the top half of the league.

The Blue Jays have regularly deployed shifts against their own hitters during intrasquad games over the past week at Rogers Centre, even changing alignments from pitch-to-pitch within plate appearances. It’s unclear whether that signals an intention to shift more frequently this season, whether they’re trying to give hitters an idea of the defensive alignments they could face, or both.

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For his part, Montoyo says the Blue Jays aren’t planning to shift any more than they did in 2019, but he’ll let the data guide them. If a hitter’s tendencies call for it, they’ll move defenders over. Unless, of course, Montoyo’s gut tells him otherwise.

“Maybe sometimes I have a feeling like, just stay pull, instead of going back to the other side. That’s a feel that I might have,” he says. “Just from watching the at-bats and stuff. We usually follow the data, whatever it says. Because when it comes to that, it’s pretty accurate.

“But you can never take that gut feeling away. We’ve seen enough games that we can make that call.”

Of course, Montoyo worked in the Rays organization when that franchise was at the forefront of baseball’s shift revolution years ago. He’s been playing with the data behind it for a long time, learning both its benefits and its faults.

He remembers, when the Rays began shifting, infield errors went up across the organization as fielders struggled to make plays from unconventional positions. In response, the Rays changed the way they drilled their infielders during pre-game work, getting them accustomed to fielding balls and making throws from all over the dirt. Montoyo says the Blue Jays have been doing something similar this year.

“You start doing infields from those spots so they get used to it. Because that’s what’s going to happen in the game,” he says. “And that’s what we do here right now.”

But you can never really drill the play Espinal pulled off in a practice setting. Certainly not at game speed. In those situations, a player’s athleticism and instincts need to take over. That’s not a situation when a player needs to remember the basic fundamentals they’d teach in little league. That’s when a player tests his ability to flow in rhythm with the play.

“I think when you see that, that tells you that you’re comfortable playing,” Montoyo says of Espinal’s instincts. “When you see guys uptight and stuff, you won’t see that. But when guys do that, that means they’re comfortable and they feel good about fielding balls. And that’s a great sign. I like it.”

Of course, the best way for Espinal to get a chance to show off his defence and versatility at the major-league level is to hit. A team of nine defensively-versatile dudes with OPS’s in the 600s isn’t going to get it done. And while the numbers early in his minor-league career were underwhelming, Espinal put up better and better performances as he climbed levels.

Santiago Espinal by level

Level PA BA OBP SLG OPS
Rookieball 99 .244 .330 .267 .597
A-ball 544 .280 .334 .358 .692
High-A 354 .302 .357 .467 .824
Double-A 573 .280 .346 .385 .731
Triple-A 112 .317 .360 .433 .793

With above-average speed, Espinal’s been able to leg out plenty of doubles over the past two seasons, putting up 27 in each. He definitely likes to pull the ball, but an encouraging number of his hits last season went right back up the middle. And he came up with a handful of extra-base hits to the opposite field as well:

He sprayed the ball around earlier in his career, but an approach tweak in 2018 led him to go to left field more often. Of course, that’s not a problem if the ball’s put in play hard and on a line. And Espinal’s shown a promising ability to do that since he reached high-A in 2018, getting the most out of his five-foot-10, 175-pound frame.

Work on his swing continued during MLB’s shutdown, which Espinal spent living and training with Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette. Every day they’d wake up, lift, hit, and take ground balls at a field near Bichette’s Florida home. And just as he’s been throughout Blue Jays camps both this spring and now, Bichette’s big-league father, Dante, was a constant presence.

“We really work on the mental side of baseball. It’s been helping me a lot. I thank him for that,” Espinal says. “If I strike out, it doesn’t mean that I did something wrong. It just means that’s baseball. And then the next at-bat, I just have to go up there positively and have a good at-bat.”

Add it all up and you can see why Espinal’s been getting as many looks as he has in this Blue Jays camp, and as many opportunities as he has to pull off Ozzie Smith moves at short. The next time you see him doing something crazy like that, it might just be in the majors.

“I trust my work,” he says. “I’ve been working hard on my hitting, fielding — anything that can help the team win, I’ve been working on it. It’s hard. But, at the same time, your work speaks for itself. I’m just waiting for them to give me an opportunity. I’m here. I’m ready for it.”

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