GREENVILLE, S.C. — What to do with Anderson Espinoza?
It’s one of the most exciting dilemmas imaginable for a baseball organization. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the 17-year-old is so good and so young that he may defy the typical template of pitcher development.
“It is a challenge,” said Goose Gregson, the Red Sox’ Latin American pitching coordinator, said of the effort to figure out a player development plan for Espinoza. “It clearly is a challenge.”
Already, the Red Sox have had to make concessions to the talent in Espinoza’s arm. He made the rare jump for a pitcher from the Dominican Summer League to the States to pitch in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League. He overmatched everyone, posting a 0.75 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 14 walks in 59 2/3 innings. That spurred the decision to send him to Single A Greenville.
What does it mean to be in Greenville at 17? Espinoza has been told that it’s unusual.
“It’s really been a shock for me because I started in the Dominican Republic and then the Rookie League. I skipped the Lowell team. And now I’m here,” Espinoza said through translator Rut Rivera. “My agent told me not many people have done this. I’m super excited.”
“Not many people” is accurate, yet fails to represent the magnitude of the accomplishment. Ricardo Sanchez of the Braves, born on April 11, 1997, had been the only pitcher in his age 18 season in the South Atlantic League. Espinoza was born roughly 11 months later, on March 9, 1998.
When he steps on the mound on Saturday for Greenville, he’ll be the first pitcher in his age 17 season in the South Atlantic League since 2006 (Deolis Guerra). He’s the first Red Sox pitcher to reach a full-season level since Josias Manzanillo made seven relief appearances for Greensboro in 1985, and the first to make a start since Mark Baum in 1977, at a time when there was no Rookie Ball.
Of course, the idea that Espinoza has arrived at the first of four full-season minor league levels would be of little significance if he didn’t have stuff. He has stuff.
Espinoza topped out in the low 90s, perhaps reaching 94 mph occasionally, when he was signed as a 16 year old out of Venezuela last summer. In 2015, however, the ball started flying out of his hand. First he hit 96 early in Dominican spring training games.
“I’d never done it,” Espinoza said of reaching 96 mph. “That was surprising. That’s when I saw the potential that I had to throw hard.”
The readings kept rising. While he would typically work in the mid-90s — anywhere from 93-96 being started fare — he started to hit 99 and then 100 in the Dominican. He continued to dabble in triple digits in the Gulf Coast League.
He wasn’t straining to achieve those sorts of readings. Espinoza’s delivery remained mechanically sound and sufficiently repeatable. He could not only send comets toward the plate but control their destination, in a fashion that Espinoza considers sustainable.
“My advance in velocity was very fast. Thank God, I feel great,” said Espinoza. “I’ve never had any problems in my shoulder or elbow. I will keep working to see if I can find more miles per hour.”
Out of the mouths of the babes ...
Realistically, it’s impossible for Espinoza to have any sense of context regarding his abilities in his first year of pro ball. He is hardly in position to appreciate the rarity of his skill set, even as he acknowledges appreciatively what he is being told.
But those who have been in the game for decades permit an admission of awe. The combination of velocity and command that Espinoza is demonstrating at 17 seems unusual.
“I just think that guys like this come along just every so often. I’m enjoying the ride, watching the ease with which he’s throwing,” said Gregson, who is in his 44th year of pro baseball and his 36th as a coach. “For a guy who throws with the velocity that he does, it’s amazing how good his fastball command actually is. I consider him an anomaly.”
Gregson recalls working with only one other player who represented a similar sort of phenomenon at such a young age.
‘Talk to Pedro’
Gregson joined the Red Sox in 2002. But prior to that, he coached for three other organizations, with his longest stint coming with the Dodgers from 1988-97. And it was there that he encountered a 16 year old unlike any he’d seen before or since — until he met Espinoza last summer, after he’d signed.
Gregson recognizes the third rail of comparisons. The idea of mentioning the background of an eventual big league star to that of a teenager who just got promoted to Greenville gives him pause, because he doesn’t want the notion of shared traits to create a sort of prison of unrealistic expectations.
Still, Gregson doesn’t deny the areas of similarity between a 17-year-old Espinoza and a 17-year-old Pedro Martinez, beginning with stuff that doesn’t align with his stature.
“The first thing to jump out at you is the comparability of their size,” said Gregson. “[Martinez’s] velocity hadn’t spiked to where this kid’s is at the same age. Their size was very comparable. The ease of their delivery, both Pedro and this kid, made them anomalies. Each one of those kids had perhaps the easiest deliveries and most comfortable deliveries I’ve seen in such young kids.
“In order to get signed a lot of times in Latin American countries, it’s the ability to light up a radar gun. As a result, you see a lot of bad deliveries, maximum effort. Both Pedro and this young kid never had deliveries that were out of control, trying to throw hard. Again, Anderson’s velocity is a bit ahead of what Pedro’s was at the same age. But to be perfectly honest with you, I think both Pedro and this kid . . . they’re anomalies. It’s something God-given, in my opinion, the ability to throw that hard. Anderson has already, in a year, grown from being a guy you don’t look at anymore and saying, ‘He’s a small pitcher.’ He’s not a big kid, but he’s already shown that he’s growing and starting to fill out the body that he was given.”
The comparisons don’t stop there. Espinoza, like Martinez, features long, flexible fingers that permit him to generate tremendous spin that helps to generate both velocity and the ability to manipulate the ball for quality secondary offerings.
Gregson said that Espinoza already features a curveball and change that would grade as major league average or better, along with his explosive fastball that he can command. Espinoza also has honed his delivery to achieve maximum extension at the point of releasing the ball, something that helps to make the ball seem to jump at opponents.
The careful refinement of the delivery, in turn, stems from what Gregson and others consider a critical commonality between Martinez and Espinoza: The determination to be great.
“This kid wants to be the best at everything he does that’s baseball related. Pedro Martinez was the exact same way,” said Gregson. “Pedro had intangibles that this kid has in the sense that the confidence factor, Pedro Martinez knew when he was a young kid, he knew he was good, he knew he was going to be good, and he used to tell me all the time, ‘Because I know I’m good and I think I’m going to be good, I will outwork everyone else who is out there.’ This kid is the same way.
“I don’t like to compare a pitcher to a pitcher. I think you simply draw from experience if you’re reminded of someone,” he continued. “I simply would say that I draw similarities in makeup, the ability to spin a breaking ball, the ability to throw strikes. I don’t ever want to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the next Pedro Martinez.’ It draws an unfair expectation on the kid you’re working with today. [But] I was with Pedro at this age, and now with this kid at this age. It clearly draws my memory back to when I spent time with Pedro as a young kid. They’re two of the best [at that age] I’ve ever seen.”
Gregson isn’t alone. GCL Red Sox manager Tom Kotchman, a minor league manager for 37 seasons dating to 1979, said that Espinoza’s ability to conjure huge stuff from a small frame likewise reminded him of Martinez and a 17-year-old whom he managed in the Angels system, Francisco Rodriguez. In makeup and work ethic, Kotchman said that he was reminded by Espinoza of a pitcher whom he managed in 1982 — first-rounder Roger Clemens, whose first professional stop was with Kotchman with the GCL Red Sox after he was drafted.
Ralph Treuel, a pitching coach in the Tigers and Red Sox systems since 1983, deferred when asked for an explanation about Espinoza’s ability, at 17, to hit triple digits with a low-effort delivery.
“Talk to Pedro,” said Treuel.
Espinoza, in fact, has done just that.
In his role as Red Sox special assistant to the GM, Martinez moves through the different Red Sox minor league affiliates. In that capacity, he had an opportunity, perhaps, to enjoy a bit of an out-of-body experience, a time machine offering a glimpse of something like himself 25 years ago.
“I’ve actually met him. We’re actually about the same size. He’s been able to give me a lot of advice here and in the Dominican Republic,” said Espinoza. “One of the things he’s told me is, ‘Don’t be scared of the guys who are 6-foot-6. We may be small, but we have huge hearts.’
“One time I was pitching, he saw me and he pulled me aside,” Espinoza added. “He said, ‘One day, when I’m retired, I want to see you on TV, and I don’t want you to have changed.’ ”
The young righthander understands that it is special to have a pitching great take such an interest in him, understands that it means something when men who have been in the game for twice as long as Espinoza has been alive tell him that he conjures memories of an immortal.
“Comparing Pedro Martinez, who is a guy in the Hall of Fame, to a 17-year-old,” marveled Espinoza, “to me that’s unbelievable.”
Of course, Espinoza isn’t Martinez, the Hall of Famer. Right now, he resembles a version — albeit a harder-throwing one — of the teenage version of the pitching great, not the great in his incomparable prime.
And so the question becomes: How to navigate Espinoza from Point A to Point B? There isn’t a clear answer.
Creating a new template
There is a typical player development progression for pitchers. Pitchers advance across levels at the same time that they build innings with the intention that, by the time their stuff and execution is big league-ready, their ability to endure the rigors of a big league workload likewise will have arrived. With few exceptions, organizations can align the progression of those two elements even for pitchers on accelerated developmental paths.
For teenagers, the workload expansion usually follows a familiar pattern, with someone like Henry Owens helping to define a best-case scenario in his steady and injury-free ascent through the minors:
Age 19 season: Single A Greenville: 101 2/3 innings
Age 20 season: High A Salem and an August promotion to Double A Portland: 135 innings
Age 21 season: Double A Portland and an August promotion to Triple A Pawtucket: 159 innings
Age 22 season: Triple A Pawtucket and an August promotion to the majors: 153 innings and counting
There’s comfort in that model, a sense that the gradual workload and stress increases line up in a way that they can be handled by a maturing pitcher. But Espinoza’s situation is complex because it is unusual.
He’s likely to open next year in Greenville. If he dominates there, he could be in line for at least one mid-year promotion to High A Salem as an 18-year-old. If he stays healthy and follows a faster track than one level per year, he’d be a consideration for the big leagues by the time that he’s 20 (2018), if not before.
Espinoza, in fact, likes the idea of before.
“My favorite pitcher is Felix Hernandez. He first pitched [in the big leagues] when he was 19,” said Espinoza. “I want to do that. I want to follow his footsteps. I’m going to be 18 next year, and I’ll be in Greenville — so who knows?”
It’s hard to imagine the Sox pushing Espinoza’s innings in the same way that the Mariners built Hernandez’s workload. Hernandez went from 69 innings as a 17-year-old (mostly in short-season ball with a season-ending cameo in Single A) to 149 1/3 as an 18-year-old (High A and Double A) to 172 1/3 as a 19-year-old (split between Triple A and the big leagues).
Indeed, members of the player development staff remain resolute that the relaxation of Espinoza’s innings limit can’t alter simply because of the idea that his stuff might play in the big leagues at a young age.
“From a workload standpoint, I don’t think we can look at it too much differently just because of his ability or velocity or maturity. You don’t necessarily change the way we would look at workload,” said farm director Ben Crockett. “Like any young pitcher potentially pitching at a higher level than some of his peers, we’ll always be conscious of that.”
Still, the Sox recognize that the distinctiveness of Espinoza’s skills may force the creation of an unusual developmental path. There may come a time in a couple of years where they may seek to preserve the option of a lightning track to the big leagues by creating numerous skipped starts, or by employing a hard early-season innings cap in each of his outings to ensure that he’ll have innings still in the tank towards the end of the year.
The Dodgers faced something of an Espinoza-like predicament this year with phenom Julia Urias, who is on a shockingly fast track. Urias spent the entirety of his age 16 season in the Single A Midwest League, then pitched 87 innings in High A last year as a 17-year-old. This year, the Dodgers supported Urias when he underwent an elective surgical procedure in the middle of the season, with a two-month midyear break serving the purpose of controlling his innings in case the team should decide to call him up.
The Sox recognize the possibility of having to employ novel tactics with Espinoza.
“That could be a problem,” Treuel, the pitching coordinator, said of aligning Espinoza’s workload management with his readiness for the big leagues. “Usually [young pitchers] let us know and tell us [when to promote them]. He already let us know that. He started off in the Dominican Summer League and now he’s in the South Atlantic League. Right there, that’s pretty unique. We haven’t had that before. Every year we’ll see how he progresses. He may be a guy who gets on a faster track. Having said that, we’ll monitor his innings, monitor his pitches. He’ll have the skips and things like that. If he continues to beat the levels consistently, he may be that exception who moves a little bit quicker than some other guys.
“Right now, he’s on a good track,” Treuel said. “But we’re very careful with young arms, especially with that kind of talent.”
As for the present
Those sorts of quandaries will be welcome if they start to confront the Sox in 2017 or 2018. It is enough to think about the steps he has already taken, or the one that looms on Saturday.
Part of the Sox’ thinking in promoting the 17-year-old to Greenville was to prepare him for the level where he’s expected to start 2016, and for different game states than he’s ever experienced. On Saturday, Espinoza will take his first step into a larger world: Baseball in front of a crowd that numbers in the thousands in a beautiful park whose contours imitate those of Fenway.
“It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of,” said Espinoza. “They told me that this place gets full with people. In the Dominican Summer League and the GCL, there was no one. If there was 20 people, that was a lot. I’ve always told my dad and my family, ‘I want to go to Greenville because I’ve heard it’s very nice.’ I’ve always asked God to let me throw … in a place with a lot of fans. I don’t feel any pressure, and I’m going to keep doing the job that I’ve done. But when I set goals, I always reach them.”
Saturday, then, represents a milestone. It is, Espinoza and the Red Sox hope, the first of many.