Guardians' No. 1, No. 7 prospects sidelined by injury

February 20th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Guardians top prospect Daniel Espino won’t be returning to the rubber any time soon.

In January, Espino learned he has a subscapularis strain and an anterior capsule tear in his right shoulder. He’s expected to not throw for at least the next eight weeks. He’ll continue to be monitored at Spring Training to determine if that timeline could change.

“I think we gotta remind ourselves like, 'OK he’s really young,'” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “So, patience isn’t always the easiest word, but it’s the best word. So, we’re gonna do the right thing. That’s the most important thing is doing the right thing. How many times have you heard me say it? It can’t just be when it’s convenient. So, we’ll do the right thing.”

As long as the Guardians were getting the bad news out of the way, the team also announced on Monday that its top Draft pick in 2022, outfielder Chase DeLauter (No. 7 prospect), reported pain in his left foot while running in December. Imaging showed a small fracture at the base of his fifth toe and he underwent surgery on Jan. 10. He’s expected to return to play in the next four to five months.

All eyes have been on Espino for a while. In ’21, he pitched to a combined 3.73 ERA with 152 strikeouts in 91 2/3 innings between Single-A Lynchburg and High-A Lake County. His arsenal stopped big leaguers in their tracks last Spring Training, as he was throwing to Minor Leaguers on the field beside their batting-practice sessions. Josh Naylor couldn’t look away. Others were whispering about his impressive strikeout numbers from the year before. Assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez was yelling over to Minor League camp, asking for the name of the pitcher on the mound.

He kept turning heads as the season began. He racked up 35 strikeouts in just 18 1/3 innings, including a 14-K performance on April 23. But then, everything came to a halt when he was shut down in May with patellar tendinitis. When he wasn’t ramping up his baseball activities after an extended period of time on the injured list, it was revealed he was dealing with a shoulder injury. He never returned to the mound during the season.

Over the winter, the goal was to get him healthy enough to thrive this year. If he remained healthy, there was a strong chance he could’ve made his big league debut by the end of the year. However, he never touched the rubber in the offseason. As Espino continued his throwing program, he felt lingering soreness and swelling, which led to the current diagnosis.

Now, the concern is figuring out how detrimental this setback will be to his long-term success. The first question is whether this will hinder him beyond the eight-week window. If not, maybe he can find a way to pick up where he left off. If so, a slew of other questions arise. Will the time he’s missed be too much to overcome? Can he stay healthy once he’s cleared? Has he missed too much developmental time?

All of this is impossible to answer until he’s back in action.

Espino is just 22 years old. He’s young and has time to come back. But the trend of his injury history has become concerning. We saw something similar with Triston McKenzie. When he was the club’s top prospect, he battled issues with upper back and chest strains, but has been able to have a successful and healthy Major League career thus far.

While Espino tries to follow in McKenzie’s footsteps, DeLauter must wait for his professional career to get underway. Drafted in ’22, he was ready to get into the mix this season, but an injury that caused him trouble (and required surgery) in his final year at James Madison University flared back up to sideline him again.

DeLauter is just one year younger than Espino, but his projection to reach the big leagues is a little further down the road than the hurler. So, his timeline doesn’t seem as urgent. However, the consistency of this injury is just as concerning as Espino’s, leaving them in a similar boat.