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Cleveland Guardians top prospect Daniel Espino on the path to becoming future ace

Matt Johnson
Daniel Espino, Cleveland Guardians
Karen Schiely / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cleveland Guardians have an outstanding history of identifying young arms and helping them develop into outstanding pitchers. Top prospect Daniel Espino is quickly proving why he could be the Guardians’ future ace and one of the team’s best prospects in recent memory.

We might look back on the 2019 MLB Draft as one of the best in recent decades. Everyone buzzed about top prospects Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr., Andrew Vaughn and C.J. Abrams. Years later, they are all emerging as some of the most exciting, young talents in baseball.

Of course, the 2019 draft class also included Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alex Manoah, top pitching prospect George Kirby and future No. 2 pick Jack Leiter. In a pool of immense talent, Espino is now emerging as the next big thing.

Selected by Cleveland with the 24th pick, Espino turned down a scholarship at LSU for a $2.5 million signing bonus to join the Guardians. It proved to be the right call as the 6-foot-2 righty is quickly working his way towards an MLB debut.

Related: MLB power rankings 2022 – Houston Astros challenging Yankees for No. 1 spot

While many expected Espino to remain in the minors for the entire 2022 season, his work thus far at Double-A Akron is proving why that ETA projection might be far too conservative.

Daniel Espino is too good for Double-A competition

Baseball: 2018 Perfect Game All-American Classic
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Guardians liked what they saw from their top pitching prospect in 2021. He routinely overwhelmed hitters at the Low-A level, striking out 35.6% of batters faced with a .217 batting average allowed (FanGraphs). He earned a promotion to High-A Lake County.

  • Daniel Espino stats (High-A): 4.04 ERA, 45.1% strikeout rate, .169 BAA, 0.94 WHIP

Cleveland brought Espino in for a look during spring training, wanting to see the progress he made. Needless to say, everyone who watched him came away impressed. A scout who watched Espino in spring training called it a “religious experience” when talking about the young righty with ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

The Guardians sent Espino to Double-A Akron, wanting their prized arm to keep refining his command and enhancing his secondary pitches. He performed well in his 2022 debut, striking out nine batters with no walks allowed. While he allowed two home runs across four innings, the ability to consistently miss bats stood out.

Great pitchers make adjustments and that’s precisely what Espino did. In his second start, he threw 4.2 hitless innings with only three walks allowed. After spending a few days working on his pitch location, Espino delivered one of the best performances we’ll see in the minor leagues all year.

Espino did the most incredible thing in his pro career. He struck out the first 11 batters he faced against the Bowie Baysox. Six of the batters struck out swinging and the other five could only sit and stare at pitches that froze them.

Following Saturday’s start, Espino has struck out 30-of-50 batters faced in 2022 and his 60% strikeout rate ranks second in the minor leagues behind Philadelphia Phillies prospect Andrew Painter (69.8%).

With a fastball that can exceed 100 mph, a devastating slider and a 12-6 curve that fools batters with years of experience, Espino is putting it all together quickly. He’s already working with two ‘plus-plus’ pitches and his command keeps getting better. If this keeps up, we might see him in the Cleveland Guardians rotation by August.

For a team that oversaw the development of Trevor Bauer and featured Cy Young Award winners Shane Bieber (2020), Corey Kluber (2014, 2017) and Cliff Lee (2018), Espino could be held in that same regard within a few years.