Espino ready to return after numerous speed bumps

February 18th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell's Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

For the past seven years, has told himself the same thing: “I was born with a destiny and nobody can stop that.”

Nobody. Nothing. And certainly, he hopes, no injury.

If you went back to 16-year-old Espino, he couldn’t have predicted the number of bumps he’d experience in his professional career -- all before he’d even reach the big leagues. He was on the fast track to being the next pitching star to come through the Cleveland system after he was selected in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft. His stuff has always been electric and the longer he was in the Minor League system, the more the hype around him built.

Entering the 2022 season, Espino sat at No. 1 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Guardians prospects list and No. 14 on Pipeline’s overall Top 100 list. At the time, his heater topped out at 103 mph and he had a plus-plus slider that could either work in the mid-80s with depth or could reach 93 mph with more horizontal action (like a sweeper).

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 in 2021. At the beginning of ’22 with Akron, Espino racked up 35 strikeouts in 18 1/3 frames, including a 14-strikeout performance on April 23. Then, everything came to a crashing halt.

Espino was sidelined shortly after that April 23 outing with patellar tendinitis, which didn’t seem too concerning. But as he was recovering from that, he sustained a right shoulder injury that would nag him for the next year. He spent the following winter building back up, hoping that everything he suffered through in 2022 was behind him, but when he arrived at Spring Training his throwing shoulder continued to flare up. That’s when the team sought surgical answers.

Espino underwent surgery last May and was given a 12- to 14-month recovery window. Knowing just how much he’s gone through since he was last in a game nearly two years ago, the Guardians will be extra careful with his build up. That’s why his goals for 2024 are so simple:

“Get healthy. Pitch one game.”

In order to get back into a regular routine -- one that can allow him to dream about his Major League debut in the near future again -- Espino has to simply start with making one start. From there, he can let his momentum build.

Espino has been able to rely on his family, teammates and those at the Arizona complex to make sure he doesn’t get down on himself through this process. He’s taken extra time to learn about his body and figure out what it needs in order to recover properly moving forward. Although he admitted it’s difficult at times to not get antsy for his return to play, he understands what he needs to do to make this happen. And now, the finish line is in sight.

“I’m trying to enjoy being around these guys, trying to enjoy this opportunity and that’s it,” Espino said. “I’m a believer and I know that God has something prepared for me and He’s not gonna put something in front of me that I’m not gonna be able to handle.”