It might seem at times as if the hype machine is already out of control for Red Sox righthander Anderson Espinoza. At 18, his ability to pitch into the mid- and high-90s — and even touch 100 miles per hour — with the makings of a swing-and-miss changeup and curveball, all from a fluid, low-effort delivery that suggests the potential for command of those weapons, has made him an outlier for his age.
That has created expectations that his future could likewise represent something special. One National League scout suggested that Espinoza’s advanced skill evokes thoughts of Dwight Gooden taking the world by storm at 19. Others look at the righthander’s breathtaking stuff from an undersized frame (he describes himself as being “around 6 feet”) and see similarities to a young Pedro Martinez.
Those lofty comparisons seem almost irresponsible for a pitcher who is currently with Single A Greenville. But a conversation with Espinoza reveals that the pitcher’s view of his potential exceeds that of any observer.
“My goals are big this year,” Espinoza said through translator Daveson Perez last month. “I want to start off in Greenville, pitch 50 or so innings, and then hopefully be promoted to High A. I want to make the [All-Star] Futures Game this year in San Diego, and hopefully I can have maybe two or three starts in Double A. Those are my goals for the season.
“I know this is a far-fetched goal. There will surely be a lot of people who don’t believe I can do it or who doubt that I can do it. But I know, and I have faith, in that I will make it to that spot that I see myself.”
If that is his view for 2016, what does he envision beyond that?
“If we’re speaking of what’s going to happen in a year, I see myself starting the year in Double A, being there for a little while, then getting called up to the majors, then being in the majors and not get told to go back down,” he said. “I want to be in the running for Cy Youngs in the future. I want to go to All-Star Games in the future. I want to be recognized as one of the best pitchers in the league. I want to have statistics to back that up, and I want to be one of the best pitchers in Red Sox history.”
There’s a fantastic audacity to Espinoza’s declarations, and he recognizes the unlikelihood of meeting every one of those goals. After all, just two pitchers (Felix Hernandez and Dylan Bundy) this century have pitched in the big leagues before turning 20.
Yet Espinoza’s ambitions come across as confident yet not arrogant, more purposeful than boastful, a tool he has used to propel up the minor league ladder. The Red Sox also appreciate that all of his ambitions are combined with the recognition that a tireless work ethic — evident, for instance, when he was seen running on fields in his native Venezuela this offseason at 7 a.m. — will be necessary to approach their fulfillment.
“I think people who just conform to being average don’t go anywhere,” said Espinoza. “I think being on top of my game and having high goals is key to me being a better player and improving and always keeping the trajectory going up.”
Of course, Espinoza — who has a 2.70 ERA with nine strikeouts and no walks in his first two starts in Greenville after posting a 1.23 ERA with 10.0 strikeouts and 2.2 walks per nine innings across three levels in 2015 — won’t choose his development path. The Red Sox will decide how quickly he advances.
Given that it’s been 21 years (Jeff Suppan in 1995) since the Red Sox had a 20-year-old on the mound, and 49 years (Ken Brett in 1967) since the team called up a 19-year-old, Espinoza is certainly trying to buck established patterns — particularly given the deliberate buildup of minor league innings (at 18, the Sox would like to see Espinoza throw somewhere around 100 innings this year) meant to preserve pitchers’ long-term health.
That said, Espinoza may have an interesting ally in his hopes of jumping on a fast-track. For decades, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has believed in the possibility of pitchers succeeding at young ages, a view he formed at the start of his front-office career while listening to famed manager, executive, and scout Paul Richards.
“Paul Richards was always of the mind-set that young pitchers could be successful at the big-league level,” said Dombrowski. “Everybody’s different, but if you have the right individual ability-wise, if you have the right ability mentally, you can do it. I’ve seen it done. So, I’m very open-minded.”
Dombrowski’s views are informed not just by Richards’s role as a mentor but also by what he’s seen. With the White Sox, pitchers Britt Burns (debuted at 19) and Richard Dotson (debuted at 20) became All-Stars. More recently in Detroit, Dombrowski gave rotation spots to 20-year-olds Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello, neither of whom had pitched above high Single A when they reached the big leagues.
Moreover, Dombrowski noted, it would be hypocritical of him to suggest age-based restraint to Espinoza. After all, Dombrowski became the youngest general manager in the game when the Expos hired him at 31 in 1988.
“I don’t have any problem with it, because there have been 19-year-old pitchers in the big leagues, and they’ve been very good. So why not [have that goal] if you’re in his spot?” said Dombrowski. “That’s a great goal to have. There’s nothing wrong with that. But worry about all the steps that you need to take care of to get there.”
For now, those focal areas include sharpening the impressive raw materials that he possesses, primarily by making gains in the consistency of his delivery, which will in turn translate to control and then command of his three-pitch mix. If he can do so, then Espinoza will inspire even more attention and hype as he moves closer to the big leagues. It is a prospect he welcomes.
“When I was younger, you never even dreamed you would reach this level where people know who you are and hold you to that high a standard,” said Espinoza. “But with that comes a lot of [responsibility] for me. If these people are saying I’m the best, then I need to work hard to become as close to what they envision me as possible.”
Tough on Travis
Sam Travis was a head-turner in spring training, leading the Grapefruit League (min. 25 plate appearances) with a .469 average to go with a .429 OBP and .729 slugging mark. Through seven games with Triple A Pawtucket, he’s hitting .240/.296/.360, perhaps in part due to the reputation that now precedes him.
“He’s been pitched tough. People know who he is already. You can tell,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles, citing the prevalence of breaking balls Travis has seen in fastball counts. “It’s a great learning experience.”
Offensively, the Red Sox can afford a largely hands-off approach for a player with an uncommon ability to make resounding contact. The same is not true defensively, where Travis has three errors in six games at first base. While Travis shows athleticism and the ability to move well, the Red Sox see the need for improved footwork and a more relaxed defensive approach.
“He’d probably be on the big-league team if he were a Gold Glove-caliber guy as far as that bat goes, but he’s just got some little things we need to smooth out and get comfortable with,” said PawSox coach Bruce Crabbe. “It’s nothing to really worry about. It’s just a matter of development at that stage. He’s a great worker. This kid will do anything you tell him to. . . . We’ve got plenty of time. We’re not panicking.”
The Red Sox’ selection of Josh Rutledge to take the roster spot of Pablo Sandoval Wednesday highlighted the slow start of PawSox infielder Deven Marrero. Marrero is the best defensive infielder in the Sox system, and his ability to play short, third, and second might have made him a natural utility fit for the big-league team. Through six games, however, Marrero was 2 for 23 (.087) with no walks and 11 strikeouts.
“The plate coverage has been suspect. He hasn’t covered the outer half of the plate. He’s just looking to get his timing down. Watching him, he’s been behind. He knows that,” said Boles. “I think he’s being a little too tough on himself early on here. He needs to get into a comfortable spot. I think it’s wearing on him mentally.”
Sailing in Salem
Through Wednesday with high Single A Salem, center fielder Andrew Benintendi was hitting .370/.414/.741 while leading the minors with four triples. Yoan Moncada was hitting .333/.462/.429 with five walks and just three strikeouts, while tied for second in the minors with six steals. However, in contrast to a 2015 season in which he was successful on 49 of 53 attempts (92 percent), he’s been caught three times this year . . . In Double A Portland, righthanded reliever Chandler Shepherd is building upon a strong impression he made in the Arizona Fall League, where the 23-year-old struck out 16 in 11⅓ innings. Shepherd has pitched four perfect innings, striking out five in two appearances for Portland . . . Jake Cosart, a 2014 third-round pick who was moved to the bullpen this spring, is taking to his new role. He’s thrown three scoreless innings with six strikeouts for Single A Greenville while working at up to 99 m.p.h.