On Thursday April 25th, making the drive from Atlanta to the Far East part of the state in Swainsboro, I was finally able to get eyes on top prep prospect Daniel Espino in his final high school game.
In arguably the weakest pitching class in decades, there has been one constant this spring - that being Daniel Espino dominating high school (and even some college) competition. Espino was a guy who came into the spring highly ranked and hasn’t done anything to drop him in my eyes. However, I hadn’t got my own eyes on him until this day late in April.
Here’s a full scouting report on Espino as well as some general thoughts on him as a prospect in this year’s class and in general over the time I’ve been covering the draft.
The opponent in this game may not have been made up of kids about to be selected in the 2019 Draft, but they had a bunch of kids who could go on to play in college.
General: Espino is listed as 6’2” and 210 pounds. I will say that I’m 6’0” myself and after standing next to him face to face for an interview (this is coming soon), it was clear to me that he he wasn’t shorter than 6’1 and a half, if not a full 6’2”. The weight definitely looks the part of the 210 as Espino is very well put together and has a strong body.
One thing that he gets dinged by some for is his lack of remaining projection. That’s true, he doesn’t have a lot of projection left on his body. However, it’s just as important to note that projection only has so much value when you have the stuff Espino has and those projectable prep arms need to reach their projection just to get close to what Espino has in stuff.
Espino is a great young man. On the field he was competitive and poised, while off he had a smile on his face most of the night, took time to sign autographs for children, and had time for everyone once the game ended. He’s known as a hard worker, and everything that was said about him from those around him backed that up. In terms of character and work ethic, you can’t ask for a better prospect and ambassador for the game....something that stood out almost as much as what he did on the field.
Fastball: The best fastball in the prep class belongs to Espino. His fastball is a high velocity pitch with life on it. The pitch was sitting in that 94-96 MPH range the entire night and he touched the 99 MPH mark a handful of times. It was a pitch that simply over-matched his opponents, but one that I’ve also seen him have no trouble blowing by top hitters at bigger national events.
Grade - 70 FV. It’s a double plus pitch and easily the best offering in Espino’s arsenal.
Slider: Coming into this game I knew the slider was a nasty pitch and clearly his top secondary offering. It didn’t disappoint as it showed it’s hard break and really challenged hitters.
Grade - 60 FV. This is a plus pitch and one that will get hitters to swing and miss because of the break to it.
Curve: I knew Espino had a curve coming into this game, but what he showed here was huge for me. The curve was not far behind the slider and was a pitch he frequently used to put away batters. Hitters were defenseless against this pitch because he had the ability to just drop the hammer in for a strike at the top part of the strike zone.
Grade - 60 FV. The curve can use a little refinement overall, but based on where it is now it’s easy to see it being Espino’s third plus offering as he continues to progress.
Change: This pitch was not utilized and I was given notice before the game that it wouldn’t be. Why would you use it at the high school level when these hitters can’t keep up to your 99 MPH fastball and two other plus pitches? The lack of utilization of the change says less about where the change is presently and more about not wanting to give high school hitters a chance against a pitch they may have a better chance to hit since the velocity on it is closer to what they can handle.
Grade - INC. I’m told that the pitch is better than most believe (it’s hard to tout it as being anything, especially when he doesn’t use it presently) and has a chance to become an average offering in time. It’s worth noting that in my talk with Daniel he recognized this on his own and commented about how he really plans to work on the change heading up to the draft. With his work ethic and a good knowledge of how to pitch as well as his own strengths and weaknesses it’s easy to project growth here.
Command: The command was not perfect, but it was solid. When Espino missed it wasn’t by much, and often times it was when he was trying to paint a corner. The command can use a little tightening- as can most prep power pitchers, but he had the general ability to come close to hitting his target.
Grade- 55-60. This is a future grade and not a present grade. What I saw makes me very hopeful that he’s going to put in the work to refine his command.
Pitchability: This is not like a high school pitcher at all. A lot of high school arms who can hit 99 MPH are throwers over pitchers at that stage of their careers, but that was not Espino. I knew he wasn’t a thrower heading in, but watching him work with a maturity of a pro really grabbed my attention.
This kid showed poise on the mound, not letting the pressure or anything that happened on the field bother him. He then proceeded to mix up his approach within at bats, going from a guy who wasn’t afraid to attack hitters to a guy who was fine to set them up and drop in a curve that just clipped the top of the zone for the strikeout looking.
I’ve seen high school arms and low minors arms, and Espino was as advanced in terms of pitchability as anyone. He proved that he’s more than just the big velocity or nasty breaking balls, but also a mature, smart pitcher capable of doing what it takes to get batters out.
Mechanics/Delivery: Daniel Espino has an unorthodox delivery and that’s no secret. However unorthodox doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad. One of the guys who had an unorthodox delivery a few years ago and has gone on to become arguably the top pitching prospect in all of baseball right now is Mackenzie Gore. Espino’s version of unorthodox can be similar as he throws strikes and doesn’t need to use a lot of effort to reach the higher end of his velocity.
The thing with Espino that I personally love is that he really uses his strong lower body in his delivery. This is why he’s able to throw 99 MPH and hold his velocity deep into games. It’s also why despite arm action that’s slightly long, I am able to feel more comfortable with his ability to remain durable- as the use of the lower body takes some of the stress off the right arm.
Overall Thoughts: I came in with Espino very high on my list, and came out with him even higher. This kid checked every box you could ask him to with his delivery, frame, character, results, stuff, and potential command. After this viewing mixed with everything else I’ve seen and heard on him, I was comfortable moving Espino into the #2 spot in my draft rankings for 2019, behind only Oregon State star catcher Adley Rutschman.
The thing with Espino is in all my years covering the draft, I’ve been this excited about two other arms - Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole.
I had seen him the day after just seeing some pitchers who rank in the Braves and Phillies Top 30 prospects in Low A, and came away liking Espino more than the Low-A arms I saw (note I liked the Low-A arms, but just liked Espino more). So in terms of seeing recent high level talents, there was a solid comparison.
Daniel Espino has everything you could want in an arm and as a person. He is absolutely a kid that I would take as high as second overall this year, and see that true frontline starter upside in him.
There is a little risk because he is a high school right hander and that is fair, but with him already filled out and having an advanced mind as a pitcher, he’s a guy who I think can move quickly once he gets into pro ball similarly to how the Braves 2016 draft arms did (Bryse Wilson debuting in the big leagues in 2018).