Espino still has value to Nats, if used properly


Age on opening day 2023: 36

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, January 2019

MLB service time: 2 years, 75 days

2022 salary: $716,200

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2024, free agent in 2027

2022 stats: 0-9, 4.84 ERA, 42 G, 19 GS, 1 CG, 113 1/3 IP, 131 H, 64 R, 61 ER, 24 HR, 24 BB, 92 SO, 2 HBP, 1.368 WHIP, 81 ERA+, 4.93 FIP, -0.1 fWAR, 0.5 bWAR

Quotable: “I think this one last outing doesn’t mean everything. I think everything I was able to do during the season, being in the ’pen at the beginning, starting a lot of games, going back and forth, I think that’s something special, too. Overall, it was a good season.” – Paolo Espino after giving up seven runs in two-thirds of an inning in his final start

2022 analysis: Entering the season, the Nationals intended to use Espino as the long man in their bullpen, one who could eat up innings in any situation required and even start if needed in a pinch. He excelled in that role for two months, posting a 2.03 ERA and 1.013 WHIP in 20 appearances, only two of which saw him face more than 10 batters.

Given how well he was pitching (albeit in low-leverage spots), and given how desperate the team was for starting help, the Nats moved Espino into the rotation in June. He stayed there the rest of the season, even though the results were markedly worse.

In 19 starts, Espino posted a 5.81 ERA and 1.458 WHIP. He went 0-9, and in the process finished only four innings shy of the record for a pitcher who did not win a game (set by the Twins’ Terry Felton in 1982). That final start against the Mets, in which Espino didn’t even make it out of the first inning, raised his ERA a whopping .54 points.

2023 outlook: Two seasons in his late-blooming big league career, it’s clear what Espino’s strengths are and what his weaknesses are. He is a rubber-armed reliever who can take the ball whenever asked and give his team two, possibly three, quality innings. He is not a traditional starter who has the arsenal to consistently churn out five or more innings every fifth day and expect to enjoy the same success.

Here’s the proof of that: When facing a lineup for the first time as a reliever, he held opponents to a .248 batting average and .615 OPS. When facing a lineup for the first time as a starter, opponents batted .250 with a .776 OPS against him. And when facing a lineup for the second or third time as a starter, those numbers skyrocketed to .346 and .978.

Because he debuted at such a late age, Espino remains highly affordable. He’ll make only slightly more than the league minimum again next year before finally qualifying for arbitration in 2024. The Nationals could certainly continue to utilize his services, provided they use him in a role that maximizes his abilities. That probably means the long reliever role. If they find themselves in another bind and need him to start again, they would be wise to limit him to one trip through the order, no matter how successful he is.

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