It was once believed that Espinal’s ceiling was that of a Blue Jays’ bench player. He has exceeded those expectations – just how good can he be?
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June 28, 2018. The Blue Jays traded Steve Pearce for minor league prospect Santiago Espinal. The Jays were going nowhere in 2018. They finished the season with a record of 73-89, 4th place in the AL East division and a whopping 35 games out of first place. 35 year old Pearce was on an expiring contract. He wasn’t someone who was likely to help the Jays contend in the future. It made sense for them to get what they could for him.
Pearce got hot at exactly the right time for the Red Sox, putting up an OPS of 1.667 in the World Series and securing the 2018 World Series MVP award. But what did the Blue Jays organization get in Espinal?
His minor league stats weren’t anything spectacular. His minor league OPS per season was as follows:
At the time, Espinal likely projected as a utility infielder who could play SS, 3B and 2B and provide solid defence.
His progression at MLB
Espinal made his MLB debut with the Jays in the covid shortened season of 2020, playing in 27 games. While he earned positive scores through Fangraphs for his base running (1.0) and defence (3.0), it took him time to adjust to major league pitching. He could only manage a wRC+ of 72 that season.
He took a big step forward in 2021, partly due to opportunity. The Jays brought Marcus Semien on for one season to play 2B, moving Cavan Biggio to 3B. Biggio, however, struggled at 3B, and spent a good part of the season on the IL Espinal played 92 games for the Jays in 2021 and continued his success as a base runner (2.3) and a defender (3.9), while making good strides offensively. He posted a wRC+ of 115, with excellent numbers for batting average (.311) and OBP (.376). If there was one area of his game that was sub-par it was the ability to hit for power. His slugging percentage was only .405. Of his 69 hits, 13 were doubles, one was a triple and he hit one home run.
In the off season, Espinal worked hard on adding muscle and the result was an additional 15 pounds. With the departure of Semien via free agency, many people expected the Jays second base job to be a platoon – left hand hitting Biggio against right handed pitchers and righty Espinal against lefty hurlers. Unfortunately for Biggio he once again struggled to perform when he was healthy. He is currently working his way back from a stint on the covid IL
Espinal has “taken the ball and run with it”. His base running and defence continue to be positives, while significantly improving his wRC+ to this point in the season at 130.
With all due respect to Biggio, Espinal has earned the right to the Jays’ every day 2B job.
Why He Might Be An All Star
Let’s look at the numbers:
Defensively, Espinal is currently second best in MLB in terms of outs above average at +5. The Tigers, Jonathan Schoop is slightly better at +6. However, Schoop’s hitting has been awful, with a wRC+ of 25. I don’t think Espinal will lose out on an all star nod to Schoop.
In a season where offence was supposed to be a strength of the Jays as a team, a number of players who were expected to perform have yet to find consistency at the plate. So far, Espinal has been one of their more consistent performers and has had a knack for coming through in key situations.
Among qualified American League 2Bs, Espinal currently has the 3rd best wRC+ at 130. DJ LeMahieu is ranked second at 134. Taking a deeper dive in to LeMahieu’s season, he has played 16 games at 3B, 12 at 2B, 5 at 1B and 1 at DH.
Personally I don’t think LeMahieu should make the all star team as a 2B, not when he has played more games at 3B.
The Guardians’ Owen Miller with his very impressive wRC+ of 165 deserves to be the starting second baseman for the American League. In a perfect world where performance would be the only factor in all star selection, Espinal would make the team as a reserve.
Why He Might Not Be an All Star
As we know, all star team selection is far from perfect.
It isn’t likely that Espinal will be voted on to the team. Many fans who vote, do so by name recognition rather than taking the time to look up everyone’s current stats. If you are a fan of MLB, even if the Blue Jays aren’t your team, there’s a good chance you have heard of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (for example) Would those same fans have heard of Espinal? If he gets in, it will likely need to be as a reserve selection.
MLB has a requirement that every team be represented at the all star game. The positive to this is that fans of all MLB teams know that their team will have at least one representative. One downside can be that someone might be all star worthy but if they play on a team with multiple other all stars, they could get passed over.
George Springer is second to Mike Trout among AL CFs with a 148 wRC+. And while Vladimir Guerrero Jr has yet to repeat the outstanding performance that saw him finish second in AL MVP voting in 2021, his numbers are solid (143 wRC+ , 18th best in the AL). Vlad Jr could be voted to the team as much because of name recognition rather than performance.
For better or worse, politics could see Espinal on the outside looking in.
For the reasons mentioned above, it is possible that Espinal will miss out on an all star selection in 2022. Jays fans can take comfort in the knowledge that either way his performance has been all star worthy.
If he doesn’t get in because too many of his Jays teammates do, that’s a great problem to have as a team.
*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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