Cleveland Guardians prospects: Would you consider trading Daniel Espino?

Akron RubberDucks pitcher Daniel Espino warms up between innings against the Erie SeaWolves at UPMC Park in Erie on April 9, 2022.P7seawolves040922
Akron RubberDucks pitcher Daniel Espino warms up between innings against the Erie SeaWolves at UPMC Park in Erie on April 9, 2022.P7seawolves040922 /

Cleveland has a number of enticing young prospects. Should they part with their highest-ranked one?

In the heat of trade season, one name stands out among them all.

Okay, that’s Juan Soto. But one name stands out among them all when it comes specifically to Guardians prospects: Daniel Espino, a right-handed starting pitcher and arguably Cleveland’s most exciting farm system member.

The 2019 first-round pick has always come with lofty expectations after he posted a 9-0 record and a 0.32 ERA his senior year of high school. So far, he has maintained that promise; Espino is the Guardians’ top-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He’s also the 11th-highest-rated prospect in any system.

Espino has all this acclaim despite never pitching above the Double-A level. In fact, while he’s been with Double-A Akron all year, he’s only started four games. Yet, scouts love him, and he’s one of Cleveland’s best assets.

With rumors of Soto trades and other blockbuster moves circulating, we should stop and ask: What is Espino worth to Cleveland? Should he be off-limits in trade discussions?

One potential issue is that Espino trails behind the rest of Cleveland’s youth movement. MLB Pipeline projects that he won’t reach the bigs until 2023, and as Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene has discovered, that transition is a bumpy one. It is safe to assume Espino won’t reach the caliber of pitching required to, say, start a postseason game until 2024 at the earliest. Meanwhile, many of Cleveland’s offensive prospects, including Nolan Jones, Steven Kwan, and Owen Miller, have already debuted. The contention clock might be ticking, especially for a small-market team that struggles to retain its youngsters after a few seasons.

A second question is how much value one starting pitcher brings to a team. We confront this issue every time a pitcher leads the league in WAR. Sure, MVP voters say, he was amazing when he pitched, but he only helped his team every fifth game. No starting pitcher throws in even 30% of a squad’s matchups. It’s true: Position players can contribute to every game in a series, whereas a starter can usually only help with one. The playoffs are an exception, but even then, most pitchers start two games at most.

A great example of this problem is Corey Kluber during Cleveland’s 2016 run. He went above and beyond in the World Series, putting his body on the line to start three games in a seven-game series. That’s three starts within nine days – instead of the regular five days of rest, he barely got three either time.

Despite his Herculean effort, Kluber still had zero impact on more than half of the games in the series. Such is the reality of starting pitchers. Even when they push themselves beyond what is, frankly, safe, they can’t contribute as regularly as position players. A designated hitter, for instance, can go on a postseason tear where he clobbers the ball at every opportunity (think of David Ortiz in the 2013 World Series). In doing so, he can score runs in each game of a series, whereas a pitcher like Kluber can’t contribute as often.

The upshot is that, when constructing a roster fit for contention, one starting pitcher can only do so much. How do you compare a great performance every four or five days to a right-fielder who gets on base 40% of the time and plays in almost every game?

A final wrinkle is that the Guardians have a strong history of developing good pitchers. Maybe it was just a lucky streak, but young arms like Cal Quantrill (and a previous iteration of Aaron Civale) make it seem as though Cleveland doesn’t have to bank on high-profile prospects like Espino. Perhaps they can continue rolling the dice and trust their coaches to craft effective pitchers once again. I’m aware that this is a gamble (and yes, I have heard of the hot-hand fallacy). But it is something to keep in mind.

In my view, these factors make Espino tradable if the Guardians feel they can get a regular hitter who’s under contract for a while (and who might agree to an extension with the team). Soto is likely out because his contract demands post-2024 figure to be astronomical. But suppose a position player who fits a need comes along. Imagine a hypothetical catcher who hits above average for the position and plays good defense. This catcher is fairly young and under contract for three more seasons. Is he worth acquiring in exchange for Espino and another developmental prospect or two? Maybe.

In the end, only the front office’s opinion of Espino matters. But what is the internet for if not evaluating real and imaginary trades? It is therefore worth asking: Would you trade Daniel Espino, and if so, for whom?