With all the infield talent in the Blue Jays system, we shine a light on Santiago Espinal
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that examined the rich position player depth in the Blue Jays system. I produced three lineups based on players who are on FanGraphs’ top Blue Jays prospect list and a fourth made of guys I thought were interesting for one reason or another. The shortstop on that lineup was Santiago Espinal, the Jays’ return in the Steve Pearce trade.
Espinal was a 10th round draft pick (2016) who didn’t particularly shine offensively in his first two pro seasons in the Red Sox system. After the draft, he was sent to the Gulf Coast League for a handful of games, where his 89 wRC+ was driven exclusively by his strong plate discipline. In 2017, he spent a full season at Low-A. His production improved (102 wRC+), but was still a bit lacking for a 22 year old at the level.
This past season, he started the season at High-A, where he displayed vastly improved hitting (136 wRC+ before the trade) and piqued the interest of the Toronto Blue Jays. Post-trade, he has continued to justify the Jays confidence in him (120 wRC+ with High-A Dunedin, 111 wRC+ with AA New Hampshire). While he lacks a standout tool, he does bring everything but power to the table.
Overall, he produced extremely well at the plate in 2018. Over 354 plate appearances at High-A, he produced a well above-average 133 wRC+ (88th percentile, min. 250 PA). After his promotion to Double-A, he produced an above-average 111 wRC+ (63rd percentile, min. 100 PA) over 164 plate appearances.
Espinal’s bread-and-butter is getting base-hits, reflected in the 50 hit/40 power grades he received from MLB Pipeline this year. He ran a .302 AVG at the High-A level (92nd percentile) and a .286 AVG after his promotion to Double-A (79th percentile).
He gets on base so often for a couple of key reasons. First and foremost, Espinal strikes out significantly less than most batters. He struck out in only 12.7% of his High-A plate appearances this season (96th percentile) and only 13.4% of his Double-A plate appearances (90th percentile). Secondly, he turns balls in play into base-hits more often than most. He ran a .326 BABIP at High-A (59th percentile) and a .328 BABIP at Double-A (65th percentile). The former makes the latter even more useful—a low K% leads to a relatively high number of balls in play. Thus, even a just above-average BABIP will result in a great deal of base-hits.
In 2018, his walk rate fluctuated from well below-average at High-A (6.8%, 24th percentile) to roughly average at Double-A (8.5%, 47th percentile). With his AVG moving in the opposite direction before and after his promotion to AA New Hampshire, Espinal ran near-identical OBP marks at each level—a .357 OBP at High-A (76th percentile) and a .354 OBP at Double-A (73rd percentile).
In his time in the Arizona Fall League—46 plate appearances over 10 games—Espinal has performed pretty well overall. He’s struck out in only 10.8% of his plate appearances and has walked a very solid 13% of the time. A low BABIP (.286) has led him to underperform in terms of batting average (.250), but his excellent plate discipline has allowed him to run a solid OBP (.348).
There’s little use in cherry-picking already-limited AFL data (he says right before doing so), but it’s worth mentioning that Espinal produced goose eggs in his first two games with the Surprise Saguaros, going 0-for-9. He’s gotten on base in each of his eight games since, running a .323 AVG and .432 OBP.
The excellent strikeout rates he produced at the High-A and Double-A levels are well-supported by equally low whiff rates. Espinal experienced a swinging strike on only 7.3% of the pitches he faced at High-A (91st percentile) and only 8% of the pitches he faced at Double-A (83rd percentile). Strong fundamentals lend confidence to the possibility that he can maintain a strong strikeout rate going forward.
It’s a bit tricky to examine the sustainability of a minor-leaguer’s BABIP without MLB tools like Statcast. That said, groundballs are the least-productive batted balls and Espinal effectively avoided hitting them this season. At High-A, his miniscule groundball rate (31.3%, 98th percentile) prompted FanGraphs to highlight this talent (as well as his aversion to whiffing) in a Fringe Five post. He hit a few more grounders at Double-A (40.7%), but was still better-than-average (62nd percentile).
Espinal will never be confused for a power-hitter, but has produced his fair share of extra base-hits. At High-A, a good balance of doubles, triples and homers allowed him to produce a solid .165 ISO (77th percentile). After his promotion to Double-A, he only managed to hit one dinger—his 1.8% HR/FB suggests that he was a little unlucky—which suppressed his ISO (.109, 36th percentile). However, he still hit doubles and triples at a solid clip—6.7% of his plate appearances resulted in one or the other (87th percentile).
A key to Espinal’s ability to get extra base-hits is his speed—MLB Pipeline views this tool as above-average (55 FV). In terms of statistically evaluating speed, we’re sort of handcuffed at the MiLB-level without the Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric. Nevertheless, the two base running stats provided by FanGraphs both reflect positively on Espinal’s speed. He produced above-average speed scores at both levels in 2018, producing a 6.6 Spd at High-A (84th percentile) and a 5.0 Spd at Double-A (62nd percentile). He also was a little better-than-most at providing value via stolen bases—he produced a 0.3 wSB at High-A (62nd percentile) and a 0 wSB at Double-A (54th percentile).
A final thing worth mentioning about Espinal’s offence is his weird/interesting batted ball profile this season. At High-A, he hit a lot of line drives, producing the highest rate of liners at the level this season (30.9%). In contrast, he hit fly balls at a roughly average rate (37.8%, 58th percentile). After his promotion to Double-A, his liner rate plummeted (14.6%, 8th percentile), while his fly ball rate jumped (44.7%, 86th percentile).
This sudden shift away from liners and towards flies might just be noise, due to a small sample size. It may also be something the Blue Jays have worked with Espinal on. As a part of the Red Sox system, 41.7% of Espinal’s balls in play were grounders and 24.3% were liners, while 34.1% were fly balls. As a member of the Blue Jays system, he’s produced a GB rate of 37.9%, a LD rate of 17.5% and a FB rate of 44.6%. Given his relatively brief time in the Jays system (177 balls in play vs. 713 in the Red Sox system), we should wait and see before making any firm judgements.
Finally, Espinal’s defence. Primarily used as a shortstop, he has seen some action at second and third since joining the Blue Jays. Statistically, he’s performed both phenomenally and poorly at shortstop. In his full season at Low-A in 2017, Espinal racked up 19 fielding runs above average (FRAA) in 102 games at short, tops in the South Atlantic League. On the other hand, he only mustered -5 FRAA at short while at High-A this season.
MLB Pipeline gives both his arm and his fielding grades of 55. They believe that “Espinal’s defense is a separator. His athleticism is on display at shortstop, where he has above-average range, soft hands and the above-average arm needed to stick at the position.”
Combined with his ability to get on-base and growing comfort at second and third, he looks like a guy who can carve out a future as a backup infielder. That said, if his plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills hold up reasonably well at higher levels, he might end up developing into the kind of utility infielder that sees a lot more playing time than a backup generally does. This jibes with the 45 overall grade that Pipeline assigned him.
Next year, he seems likely to start the season at Double-A. If he picks up where he left off in 2018, he could see a promotion to Triple-A, depending on how those ahead of him progress.
Santiago Espinal has a useful set of tools, with Pipeline giving all but his power a grade of 50 or 55. Moreover, his stats back those grades up. He hits well, producing a strong batting average and on-base percentage. He runs well, producing a slightly above-average speed score and weighted stolen base runs. And he fields well, producing 12 fielding runs above average at shortstop during his time as a pro. While he might not be the Blue Jays’ shortstop of the future, he is the kind of talented prospect that sets apart the league’s deeper systems (like the Blue Jays’).
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.