PEORIA, Ariz. – Santiago Espinal returned to the Salem Red Sox dugout with a purpose in the third inning of an 8-3 loss to the Carolina Mudcats on June 28, having just fielded a groundball from Canadian Demi Orimoloye and relaying it to first base for the third out. The shortstop was due up third in the bottom half and he was about to get his helmet when manager Joe Oliver pulled him aside and said Jerry Downs was going to hit in his place.
“I thought I did something wrong, or something was wrong,” recalls Espinal. “The coach said, ‘I have to pull you out because you might get traded.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ I was in shock so I sat the whole game thinking about it. When the game was over I got the call, ‘Hey, you just got traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Steve Pearce, and we’re looking forward to meeting you tomorrow.’ So I had to say bye to my teammates and leave right away.
“I was excited, but it was surprising. Everything came out of nowhere. And the next day I was in Dunedin.”
First, there was a mad scramble to pack up his locker, then his apartment and then to the airport for 6 a.m., kicking off a hectic 3½ month stretch that’s included a promotion to double-A New Hampshire, an Eastern League championship and his current stint in the Arizona Fall League.
The 23-year-old’s acquisition added to the club’s glut of middle-infielders at the upper levels of the farm system. And while he lacks the pedigree of more heralded prospects like Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, the Blue Jays liked him enough to send $1.66 million to the Red Sox to cover some of the pending free-agent slugger’s remaining salary.
Helping them land Espinal was that Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays amateur scouting director, worked with the Red Sox when they drafted him in the 10th round of the 2016 draft out of Miami-Dade junior college. Sanders described Espinal as “a solid all-around player” who “did enough with the bat, enough with the glove.”
“Athletic body, moved pretty well in the middle infield, had some gap power, could get down the line pretty well as a runner,” he says. “We were certainly intrigued by the tool-set and felt he had a chance to provide some value in the middle of the infield.”
The key for the five-foot-10, 175-pound Espinal will be how he progresses at the plate.
He posted a .692 OPS in low-A Greenville in 2017 before taking a step forward this year in Salem, slashing .313/.363/.477 in 281 plate appearances over 65 games before the trade, and then .286/.354/.748 in 164 plate appearances over 42 games at double-A following a brief stint in Dunedin.
John Schneider, his manager at New Hampshire, described him as “a plus-plus defender at short, second and third,” who needs to be “more aggressive on pitches in the zone,” an assessment Espinal agrees with.
“I need to be more consistent with the strike zone,” he says. “I feel like if I can improve that, I can do everything, I can put the ball in play wherever I want, I can get on base. When I feel comfortable hitting at the plate, I feel unstoppable. When I was on Salem, that’s how I felt, that’s what I had, I believed in myself.
“I always believe in myself, but I was feeling so comfortable and in baseball it happens, you get uncomfortable for a time, and then you come back. When I was in double-A I was a little uncomfortable and then I got to fix it real quick and that’s what I think would help me more, getting to better know the strike zone.”
Espinal was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, but moved to Miami when he was 13. From there he bounced around to Orlando, New York, where he graduated from high school, back to Miami, Orlando and then back to Miami when he received a scholarship to Miami-Dade junior college.
“It was a little bit crazy, it was a grind,” says Espinal, “but you’re trying to reach your dream.”
That dream, initially at least, was more geared to college baseball so he could play while studying, but that changed once he started opening eyes at Miami-Dade.
“Out of nowhere I met all the scouts, they were doing meetings with me and I was like, ‘This is getting interesting,’” he says. “From there I started getting serious about baseball, I got drafted and I’m here right now.”
Where he fits in next year and beyond will be interesting for the Blue Jays, who face the difficult challenge of ensuring they identify and prioritize the right guys in their system. Bichette and Biggio are likely to graduate to triple-A, leaving Espinal to perhaps open next year at New Hampshire, perhaps with the up-and-coming Kevin Smith. Further behind, Kevin Vicuna impressed at low-A Lansing while Logan Warmoth had an off-year at Dunedin but is a 2017 first-rounder.
By making himself reliably versatile around the infield, Espinal is set up to find his way into regular playing time, one way or another, and the rest will be up to him.
“I need to work on a little bit of everything, that’s how every player sees it and I think next year will be a good year for me no matter if I’m at double-A, triple-A, or the major-leagues,” he says. “I’m going to be the same guy, work hard and try to help the team win and come back better than this year.”