Then & Now: Paolo Espino

Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.

3.66.

That is the career ERA of Paolo Espino in 173 games and 696 innings in every level at the minor leagues.

Considering the numbers, one would think that Espino might be on the cusp of making the big leagues or at least be considered a Major League depth option. However, neither of those descriptions seem applicable to the right-hander.

Espino is now set to become a minor league free agent provided that the Cleveland Indians do not add him to the 40-man roster. At this point, there seems to be little evidence to suggest that the Indians are willing to make such a move.

So, who’s in the right here? Are the Indians right in believing that even in his best days, Espino would translate into nothing more than a fringe Major Leaguer? Or does Espino’s consistent performance throughout the years suggest that he’s at least a guy worth a gander?

One thing is for sure. Espino cannot be faulted for underperforming throughout his career. It’s quite the opposite actually as the Panama native has essentially been a consistent force since the day he made his professional debut. Despite being armed with a fastball that touches the lower 90s on a good day, Espino has done nothing but perform in his years in the Tribe’s system.

Then:

Espino was drafted by the Indians in the 10th round of the 2006 Draft out of Pendleton High School. From the get-go, Espino displayed his versatility and bulldog mentality. He did not let his stuff, or more appropriately, lack of stuff affect the way he approached hitters.

In his first professional season, while pitching as a starter and in a bullpen role for Class-A Lake County, Espino posted a 3.66 ERA in 108 1/3 innings of work.

Espino then pitched mostly in a bullpen role the following season at Lake County and High-A Kinston before arguably his best professional season in 2009. In 134 1/3 innings that year between Lake County, Kinston and Double-A Akron, Espino posted a 3.01 ERA.

The following season, Espino then made the full-time jump to Akron and then Triple-A Columbus, and while his numbers did take a hit, Espino never seemed to be overwhelmed by his surroundings.

Yet, there was also evidence that the Indians’ front office did not seem to hold Espino in very high regard. The next season, in another stint with Akron and Columbus, Espino got even better. In 120 1/3 innings between the two clubs, Espino posted a 2.77 ERA with a 119 strikeouts.

Given the numbers and the fact that Espino could pitch as a starter, long reliever or middle reliever, one would think that he would have been on the radar of the Major League club. However, there were never any rumblings about a possible Espino promotion, which seemed to serve as evidence of the perception of Espino throughout the organization.

Now:

Espino just recently completed his sixth full season playing within the Indians’ minor league system. As has been the case for much of his career, Espino was very consistent.

In 123 innings between Akron and Columbus, Espino posted a 3.29 ERA while striking out 111 and walking only 38. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Espino was a central cog in Akron’s run to the Eastern League Championship.

He made 20 starts for the Aeros this past year and posted a 3.09 ERA. Espino’s value to the club also went beyond his on-field performance. With young, promising pitchers like Giovanni Soto and Danny Salazar spending time at Akron at one point or another, Espino’s experience and prior success proved invaluable.

The actual on-field performance was not too shabby either. After scuffling in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs (4 earned runs in 4 1/3 innings), Espino delivered big time in Game 1 of the Eastern League Championship Series. The right-hander needed just 95 pitches to deliver seven shutout innings while allowing just two hits in a game that the Aeros ultimately won 3-0.

If it was Espino’s swan song as a member of the Indians organization, it was certainly a memorable one.

Future:

As stated previously, unless the Indians decide to add him to the 40-man roster, Espino is set to become a minor league free agent. All indications point to Espino heading toward free agency, but the question lingers in regard to whether the Indians are making the right move here.

From a performance standpoint, Espino has nothing left to prove. Yet, as a 5 foot 10 inch right-hander who weighs 190 pounds, it’s not too hard to see the Indians thinking here. Espino just does not have the stuff or measurables to suggest that he could succeed at baseball’s highest level. Plus his .330 BABIP at Akron this season seems to suggest that he was on the lucky side.

However, consider the case of Indians starting pitcher Josh Tomlin. Many of the same knocks on Espino dogged Tomlin throughout his career. Yet, Tomlin seemed to show he could be an effective back-of-the-rotation starter, at least before injuries started to take their toll.

One thing is for sure. By no means are the Indians stockpiled with potential starting arms. It is unquestionably one of the biggest weaknesses of the system, so it seems somewhat peculiar that the team would just let a productive one walk away. No, Espino is not an “impact arm,” but why should he immediately be written off as someone who cannot make it in the Major Leagues? If the Indians had a handful or promising arms, sure, but it just does not seem as if this is a decision the Indians have the luxury of making at this point.

The whole situation surrounding Espino also begs this question: Why did the Indians ever draft him in the first place?

As a small, soft-tossing right-hander, what were the Indians expecting? Did they suddenly believe that his high-80s fastball might substantially increase? Did they expect him to grow significantly and/or put 40 pounds?

On the surface, it appears as if Espino has done everything that has been expected of him — he has performed and succeeded at every level. So just one more question: Exactly what were the Indians expecting?

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