Espinal overlooked, valuable

Commentary

HARRISBURG — The start of any minor league baseball season includes frequent — and quite often meaningless — discussions about where so and so falls on a list of prospect rankings.

Those are important, and can be a starting point to determine which players to watch for. But in a lot of cases, those rankings try to predict the future, while telling you nothing about which guys are actually the best players on a given team right now.

The Curve’s Edwin Espinal is a great example.

In terms of production for this year’s team, Espinal is certainly one of the best and most important players on the club.

Yet he’s not ranked in any top 30 ranking of prospects in the Pirates’ organization.

“Double-A All-Star last year, he’s our heart and soul, to be honest with you,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “Team leader, plays very good defense, handles the 4-hole very well, more than probably anyone else right now.”

Espinal started the season on a strong note Friday, going 2-for-2 with two RBIs, a sacrifice fly and two walks, while also playing a clean third base. That’s not a surprise coming off a breakthrough 2016 season in which he hit .289 with seven homers, 56 RBIs and 25 doubles for the Curve.

Espinal is a very good Double-A player. And potentially more.

“I think he’d be outstanding anywhere,” Ryan said. “He’s got the skills to play in the major leagues. He’s taken care of his body, he’s changed that. Just a very professional hitter, especially with guys in scoring position, and a very good two-strike hitter. Plays two corners very well.

“The intangible things he brings into the clubhouse, the energy that he brings every day is contagious. He makes your team that much better.”

Espinal, 23, was signed as a non-drafted free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2011. He’s always hit for a good average — .275 career minor league mark — but has flown under the radar from a prospect standpoint.

“The only thing that I try to do is give 100 percent every day,” Espinal said when asked about prospect rankings. “The only thing I can control is play hard and do my job. I don’t look at the prospect stuff. The only thing I look at is play hard, have a good season and keep going.”

Espinal will play first and third base this season for the Curve, and he’ll hit in the middle of the order. If he can show more power while continuing to hit for a high average, it certainly will make more people take notice of him.

A good comparison is Jose Osuna, one of the Curve’s best players last season but also someone who was never high on prospect rankings. Osuna crushed the ball during spring training for the Pirates and nearly earned an opening-day job, but instead he’s starting in Triple-A and should get an opportunity if one arises in the big leagues.

Espinal sees himself in the same situation as Osuna was a year ago.

“Last year he was here, he’s got talent, he hits every year,” Espinal said. “And you see this year, he gets to big league camp and hits good. I can be like that.”

Espinal likely will spend a good bit of the season with the Curve, unless something happens up the line in Triple-A. In doing so, he will get a chance to play every day, hit in the middle of the order and keep producing at a high level.

Top prospect or not, that’s the kind of stuff that opens doors for any minor leaguer.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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