Daniel Espino had one of the best fastballs among any pitcher in the country, consistently sitting in the upper-90s and even touching triple digits. His slider and curveball have the chance to be plus pitches as well, and that package is why he was in the room at MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, in anticipation of being a high pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft.
Of course, none of that was immediately on display Monday in Studio 42 as Espino waited to begin his pro career. What was there for all to see, placed on the left lapel of his dark-blue suit was a pin of the Panamanian flag, the flag of his home.
"This is a dream come true," Espino said after the Indians took him 24th overall, the second prep pitcher off the board. "When I was 10, I made the decision to leave home because of the purpose and the destiny I think I had. When I was 15, I did it again, and this goes to show that the sacrifices that me and my family had made [paid off]."
Under a different scenario, Espino wouldn't have been eligible for the 2019 Draft at all.
Had Espino stayed home throughout his teen years, he would've fallen under international signing rules. First, those stipulate that players born outside the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada aren't forced into a Draft system. They can sign with whatever team they'd like, though international bonus pools limit teams' spending. They can also sign at 16, two years before their American counterparts in most cases.
That aside, there was no guarantee Espino would've been good enough to warrant a signing, or whether he would've even drawn enough attention in a country that gets lapped on the international scene by baseball powers such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba. Only six Panamanians played in the Major Leagues last season. The most famous player from the country, Mariano Rivera, retired in 2013. He'll join Rod Carew as the nation's only Hall of Famers this summer.
Espino would've been eligible to sign in 2017 in a July 2 class headlined by current No. 4 overall prospect Wander Franco. No Panama native was ranked among MLB.com's top 30 international prospects that year, and No. 36 Leonardo Jimenez was the only countryman among Baseball America's top 50. (Jimenez signed for a reported $825,000. The slot bonus for Espino's Draft position is $2,831,300.) So it may have been hard enough for Espino to get noticed if he was throwing only in the low-80s in his mid-teens.
But even then, the son of a Panama City doctor said the traditional international signing route was a non-starter, even if he had stuck around and shown a few more clicks of velocity on his fastball.
"First off, being an international signing, it wasn't on top of our list," Espino said Monday. "My mom and dad wanted me to finish high school first. If you're an international signing at 16, they're going to take you out of school and all that. We didn't want that to happen."
That didn't mean the right-hander still didn't dream big dreams. From a young age, Espino knew he was sticking out among his peers in Panama and had the foresight to forge a path that would get him to the game's highest level, even if there were some detours along the way.
"When I was 10, I basically told my mom that they'll mess up my future," he said. "So I came out of the room, ready to go with my bags packed. I came over here and lived with my uncle in Miami. I loved it -- just being able to play the game and have a location here in the United States, it was a dream to me. I felt I was going to be a Major Leaguer at that time. A year went by and I came back to Panama because I started to miss my family. ... [But when I was back], nothing was the same. The competition, the facilities, nothing was the same. I told myself, this is what I've been doing since I was three years old, so I'm not going to let this go past me. So I decided to do what I love to do, and that's play the game."
Espino's drive got another boost in his early teens when a family friend suggested to his father that he could have a future in the pro game with the raw stuff he was showing on the mound. With education still of the utmost importance -- and Espino's love of the United States still burning -- the family began looking into scholarships that could get him a diploma and a chance to shine in the sport he loved. They found an arrangement at Bulloch Academy, where he'd take classes, and Georgia Premier Academy, where he'd play ball -- each in Statesboro, Georgia.
"That August when I left to come over here to Georgia, I told my parents I was going to be the best pitcher in the United States," Espino said. "I feel I am now."
Under the tutelage of head coach Gene Reynolds and assistant Gary Cates -- former Minor Leaguers themselves -- Espino started on his road to the first round by emphasizing long toss and strengthening his lower half -- neither of which had been priorities in Panama. His first big jump came before his junior year when he began touching the mid-90s. That led to invites to showcase circuits around the country over the summer, including the Under Armour All-America Game, where Espino hit 99 on the gun to break the event's velocity record previously established by 2017 No. 2 overall pick Hunter Greene.
The Indians entered the equation, like most other teams, that summer as they tried to survey the 2019 Draft class. They would later invite Espino to their own workout for Georgia-based players in the fall and even brought him to Progressive Field this spring. At every stop, Espino's stuff jumped out to scouts, crosscheckers and others in the front office.
"Watching him throw, you just see a pure pitcher," said Indians director of amateur scouting Scott Barnsby. "The velocity jumps out, but he's also got a real shape to his fastball. Then, there are the power off-speed pitches off that. He works with real athleticism and an overall flexibility and range of motion. It's been a nice gradual progression watching him. The more we saw him, the more we saw the consistency of the breaking balls and everything coming together. The changeup isn't something he needed, so that'll take some time to develop, but the best thing is he knows that. He's locked in a lot already, and he's got some room to grow. We're excited."
But as much as Cleveland fell in love with Espino the pitcher, they were also falling for Espino the person, especially as they learned more about his backstory.
"You think of the family birthdays, all the holidays he had to miss, the sacrifices he made -- they show how much he cares," Barnsby said. "We tell all of kids that they're going to face some adversity in this game. Well, he's already done that. ... Our number one goal is to know the player through this process, know who he is on the field and off the field. That's all baked into our evaluations. When we start looking at players, the biggest compliment we can give is that there are no surprises. With Daniel, we feel pretty confident there aren't going to be any surprises."
But the question remains -- could Espino have been the same pitcher if he'd matured in Panama? Or did his move stateside not only have influence on his Draft eligibility but his Draft stock as well? Barnsby doesn't have a clear answer, but he does have a pretty good idea.
"I can't speak to what kind of pitcher he was in Panama, but Gene Reynolds at Georgia Premier has been a round a while," he said. "He's very structured in the way he does things, and you can tell that hits home with Daniel. He's someone that cares about his routines, and he's not only going to take instruction well, he already understands what he needs to do to get better. For him, that starts with lifting properly and maintaining that flexibility that makes his stuff play so well. Being around people with knowledge is always going to help, and that's what he got by coming here."
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Espino, who had a commitment to LSU before the Draft, still has to sign with the Indians to complete his full journey to professional baseball, but that is mostly a formality given when he was taken. Besides, this is the journey that a 10-year-old from Panama City packed his bags for all those years ago.
"It feels amazing," Espino said of the Draft process. "Coming over here at the age of 15, after all I've been through every single day and the adversity I've faced, waking up and knowing that my family's not there. But that's always motivated me to get better. I did it for them. I did it for God. In the end, we can't control what's going to happen, but I know God has a plan for me."