GREENVILLE, S.C. — One after another, the acknowledgement remained the same. Rarely, if ever, had anyone seen anything like 17-year-old righthander Anderson Espinoza.
Some of the early signs came as the Red Sox moved toward signing the dazzling talent out of Venezuela in the summer of 2014. Espinoza’s talent proved so compelling that the team planned not only to give him a $1.8 million bonus but to blow past the slotted international amateur budget recommendations of Major League Baseball.
In doing so, the Sox were willing to forgo the opportunity to sign players to bonuses in excess of $300,000 in 2015-16 or 2016-17. Espinoza was worth that kind of commitment.
The Sox signed Espinoza as a wiry 6-footer with an advanced feel for a three-pitch mix (fastball, curveball, changeup). His fastball sat in the low 90s while touching, perhaps, 93 or 94 last summer. The team projected that he might add velocity down the road. No one, including Espinoza, expected he would be hitting 99 and even 100 this year.
“When I was first in spring training games, I threw 96. I’d never done it. That was surprising,” Espinoza said through translator Rut Rivera. “So that’s when I saw the potential that I had to throw hard. I’m in my third game against the Yankees, and that was the first time I threw 99. I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ ”
Espinoza has enjoyed unfettered dominance in 2015, starting in the Dominican Summer League, with a 1.20 ERA with 21 strikeouts and three walks over 15 innings and four starts.
That performance convinced the Sox to promote Espinoza to the rookie level Gulf Coast League, where he continued to overmatch his competition. In 10 starts, he posted a 0.68 ERA with 40 strikeouts and nine walks in 40 innings.
The reviews from baseball lifers are noteworthy.
Red Sox pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel has spent 32 years working with minor leaguers, and is in his 20th season with the Red Sox.
“To draw a comparison at that age, I haven’t seen anyone like that. I’ve seen guys with easy arm action, but not creating velocity like he does,” said Treuel. “He’s a special, special pitcher.”
Tom Kotchman, who had Espinoza in the GCL, has been managing in the minors for 35 years. The 17-year-olds he’s seen who are like Espinoza are limited, particularly given his unimposing stature and the effortless way he generates velocity.
“He reminds me of a cross between Pedro [Martinez] and [Francisco Rodriguez], when K-Rod was young,” said Kotchman, who managed Rodriguez as a 17-year-old. “It’s like he’s got ice in his veins. He’s just calm, cool, collected, and if you don’t look at the radar gun readings, it just doesn’t look like he’s throwing 95, 96, 97.”
That Espinoza was promoted to the GCL — the lowest rung of the minor league ladder in the States — already represented something exceptional. Yet his performance proved so compelling that, with the conclusion of that season, the Sox sent Espinoza up to Single A Greenville, where he is more than a year younger than anyone else. He is on a fast track with little precedent in the Red Sox organization in recent years.
There have been pitchers on aggressive player development tracks in the Red Sox system. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz got to the big leagues at 22. Since 2000, three Red Sox pitchers — Michael Bowden, Craig Hansen, and Abe Alvarez — have reached the big leagues in their age 21 season. Michael Kopech, a 2014 first-rounder, opened this year in Greenville at 18 (he turned 19 on April 30).
Still, there’s been nothing like Espinoza’s blitz up to the fourth of seven rungs of the minor league ladder in his first professional season. Yet Espinoza has earned the distinction.
“There’s not too many guys who have done or shown the skill set that he has, at least in my time in this role,” said farm director Ben Crockett. “We’re rewarding a positive season and sending him to a place where he’ll likely spend time over the course of his career, in a place that gives him a good experience to be exposed to night baseball in a competitive environment.”
Espinoza is aware he has rocketed through his first stages of the minors. Yet the 17-year-old, who is slated to start for Greenville on Saturday, hopes to continue his rapid rise, in a fashion that would have him accomplish something unseen by the Red Sox since Mike Garman’s debut in 1969.
“My favorite pitcher is Felix Hernandez. He first pitched [in the big leagues] when he was 19. I want to do that,” said Espinoza. “I want to follow his footsteps. I’m going to be 18 next year, and I’ll be in Greenville [to start], so who knows?”
That question hovers over the Red Sox as they watch the initial professional steps of a pitcher whose first steps in pro ball have distinguished him. What that means regarding his big league future — or his timetable for continuing to move forward — represents a great unknown, but at 17, Espinoza represents an unusual sense of possibility.
“There ain’t no 17-year-old juniors in this country that have his three-pitch mix, not that I’m aware of,” said Kotchman. “If there were, they would have their names splattered over everything, and then they probably wouldn’t become what they might become, because they’re anointed this and that. This kid is very, very humble for someone who could possibly be what he can be.”
Around the minors
Espinoza wasn’t the only mound standout on the GCL Sox. Lefthander Logan Allen, an 18-year-old taken out of the IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) in the eighth round of this year’s draft and signed to a $725,000 bonus, had a 0.90 ERA with 24 strikeouts and one walk. “If you put his video right next to Jon Lester, you’d think it was Jon Lester,” said Kotchman. “That’s how eerily similar the body type is, the delivery is, the way he looks. When our scouts first saw him at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, that’s exactly what he looks like.” . . . Brian Johnson is working out in extended spring training in Fort Myers but has yet to resume throwing, even though he has not experienced any setbacks since being shut down at the end of July with nerve irritation in his left elbow. “Nothing has changed in terms of diagnosis,” said Crockett. “The reports remain positive. He continues to get better. I don’t have a set timetable. I think there’s probably less of a hurry with the minor league season just about over and he’s unlikely to pitch in the big leagues with the amount of time lost.” . . . Kopech, who was suspended for 50 games for a positive test for an amphetamine, is also in Fort Myers working out. He’ll pitch for the Sox’ Instructional League team this fall. After he pitched 65 innings for Greenville in the regular season, the Sox are satisfied that with instructional league, they’ll be able to get him enough innings to permit a standard developmental progression . . . The Sox have assigned six players to the Arizona Fall League. First baseman Sam Travis, who has spent the second half in Double A Portland, is the top prospect who will play in the prospect-laden league. He’ll be joined by infielders Carlos Asuaje and Tzu-Wei Lin and righthanders Aaron Wilkerson, Chandler Shepherd, and Kyle Martin. Though the Sox are expected to add a pitcher and infielder to their Arizona Fall League roster, Yoan Moncada would be more likely to play in Puerto Rico if he does play winter ball.