When draft day arrives, the Detroit Tigers love themselves some hard-throwing pitchers. This is true for many teams, of course, but the Tigers in particular have a well-established affinity for high-powered arms. After all, they have taken a right-handed pitcher in the first round four years in a row now, and have consistently gone to that well further down the draft board over the years.
Hard-throwing righthander Daniel Espino isn’t in play for the Tigers at No. 5 overall — I think it’s safe to say their first round streak will be snapped this year — but as his stock has fallen throughout the spring, it’s possible the draft-eligible Panamanian (he is attending high school in the U.S.) could drop all the way to the Tigers’ second round pick, at No. 47 overall. While this seems unlikely after being mocked in the first round throughout the spring, he was excluded from Baseball America’s latest mock draft, and landed at No. 32 overall on a pair of other recent mocks around the internet.
Espino’s profile is certainly one that fits with the Tigers’ historical draft day preferences. He throws hard, has a solid secondary offering or two, and [checks notes] yup, throws hard. Let’s dig deeper into what he could bring to the table.
School: Georgia Premier Academy (GA)
Draft day age: 18
MLB Pipeline draft prospect rank: 22
Previously drafted: N/A
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: RHP Daniel Espino
Espino’s calling hard is a huge fastball, one that ran up as high as 99 miles per hour the Under Armour All-America Game. Not surprisingly, this ranks in the 99th percentile of this year’s draft class, according to Perfect Game.
Athletic build with a very strong lower half. High flexible leg raise, gets his strong hips turned well, very long arm action in back and shows the ball to the hitter, extended 3/4’s arm slot. Fastball topped out at 98 mph, comes in hot and hard, works the top side of his velocity range the majority of the time, life and fastball command best at his highest release points, has consistently thrown this hard in numerous events thus far this summer.
Espino’s fastball reached as high as 98 mph at a Perfect Game event this spring, putting him among the best prospects in this year’s class at the time.
Espino worked up to 98 mph on his fastball and averaged 96 while showing an advanced ability to spot his fastball on the low outside corner to righthanded hitters. He was able to get consistent weak swings on 82-85 mph sliders away that mimicked his fastball well until breaking out of the zone at the last moment. It was a picture of an 18-year old pitcher in complete command of his delivery and pitches and throwing confidently at his peak level. Espino certainly belongs on the very short list of top pitching prospects for the 2019 draft.
As MLB Pipeline noted, Espino can overpower hitters with sheer velocity,” and he “gets good riding action on his four-seamer.” They graded his fastball as a double-plus offering, something echoed by Baseball America when they called Espino’s arsenal “the loudest of any arm in the class.”
Espino’s fastball is supported by a trio of secondary offerings. The slider and curveball are his best off-speed pitches right now, and both have drawn plus grades from multiple outlets. MLB Pipeline has the curveball just above-average at the moment, and Perfect Game expanded by saying it “tends to be too soft in comparison to his fastball.” Baseball America praised both pitches in their evaluation, where he ranks as the No. 26 prospect in the draft class.
After his fastball, Espino has two seperate breaking balls that look like plus pitches. His curveball sits in the mid-70s, and his slider is thrown in the low 80s. Both have sharp, late-breaking action and are legitimate swing-and-miss offerings when combined with his 80-grade fastball.
If Espino tightens up the curveball a bit, that makes for three potential plus pitches from a guy who can hit the high-90s on the radar gun. Baseball America also noted that Espino has “elite lower-half strength” and “solid athleticism and body control,” giving him true front-of-the rotation potential.
There are two sides to Espino’s story, and the other isn’t pretty. The biggest knock on Espino is an “unconventional arm action,” which Baseball America described in detail in their latest update.
Just grading out the tools, there are only a handful of players who would make sense to be listed above Espino in any draft ranking, but teams are split on the prep righthander because of an unconventional arm action, reliever risk and the recent poor track record of high school pitchers who throw as hard as Espino does at such a young age. Espino’s arm action is long, and while his control is solid, scouts believe that he’ll need to refine his command at the next level, where hitters won’t be as likely to chase secondaries out of the strike zone. Scouts have also noted that Espino’s stuff and control are both better when he pitches on longer rest and question how he will perform when he is throwing on a pro schedule.
Espino’s long arm action and inconsistent control and command have led some scouts to believe that his future resides in the bullpen. He has a lot of work to do to tighten up his mechanics, all while continuing to develop his command and secondary pitches. This is true for most prep arms, of course, but Espino’s size and frame might be working against him on this front. MLB Pipeline notes that Espino “is smaller than his listed height and weight,” and many outlets believe that he is maxed out physically. High school arms who throw this hard this early don’t have a great track record of success — former No. 4 overall pick Riley Pint has fallen off top-100 lists already, for instance — and there will always be questions about his durability considering he’s on the smaller side for a starting pitcher.
We should also mention Espino’s changeup, the weakest of his four offerings. Multiple outlets have labeled it “too firm” at the moment, but MLB Pipeline pointed out it “flashes good sink at times.” No one seems too worried about it at the moment, but it’s not exactly a strength either.
Draft position: late first or compensation round
Espino’s stock may be falling, and prep righthanders tend to drop down the board on draft day, but it’s hard to see him making it through the compensation round. Several of the teams in that bracket will have plenty of bonus pool money to spend — the Arizona Diamondbacks have the largest bonus pool in the draft, and back-to-back picks at No. 33 and 34, for instance — and might be willing to take a flier on Espino’s lofty potential. He is committed to LSU, a program that does well to pull prep talent to school, but should still sign if a team goes a bit over slot (as is the case with most high schoolers in this range). He might also be one to go the junior college route and enter the 2020 draft if he falls farther than expected this year.