The Situation: The Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in unfamiliar territory early on this season: in first place in the National League Central at 24-18. The Brew Crew’s hot start has been thanks in large part to an offense that ranks second in the league with 221 runs scored. The pitching staff looked rather suspect early on, but has been quietly resurgent of late and now ranks 12th in the MLB with a 4.11 ERA. Unfortunately for Wily Peralta, he has not been a part of that recent pitching revival. After failing to complete five innings in each of his last two starts, Peralta (and his 6.08 ERA/6.08 DRA) has been demoted to the bullpen in a move that feels like it’s at least a couple years overdue. Brewers ace Junior Guerra is slated to return from the disabled list later this month, but with wins at a premium for the Milwaukee Nine, the club decided they could not allow Peralta to make even one more start before Guerra’s return. In his place, 30 year old Paolo Espino has been named as this afternoon’s starter versus the Chicago Cubs and will be making his major league debut.
Background: Espino began his career as a 10th-round pick by the Cleveland Indians way back in 2006 as a prep arm out of The Pendleton School in Florida. The native of Panama spent the first seven years of his career within the Indians’ organization before signing with the Nationals as a minor league free agent and spending three seasons within their minor league ranks. David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers signed Espino to a minor league deal last winter, and he began the season in the rotation for the Class-AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Despite playing his home games in baseball’s harshest pitching environment, Espino has been one of the top pitchers in all of AAA this season. He has made seven starts for the Sky Sox, working 39.0 innings while authoring a 2.54 ERA and 40:5 K/BB ratio. DRA feels as though his run prevention totals don’t do his pitching skills near enough justice, as he owns a 0.71 mark this season, which translates to a ridiculous 14 DRA-. Really, this season has just been a continuation of Espino’s extended dominance of the upper minors:
Last season, Craig Counsell gave shots to atypical prospects like Junior Guerra and Brent Suter because in his mind they had “earned it.” It’s a similar situation here for Espino, who gets the first crack at the big league rotation over top prospects like Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff, and Jorge Lopez, none of whom have been as effective statistically as Espino has this season.
Scouting Report: Espino is a short, stocky pitcher, standing at 5’10” and tipping the scales at 215 lbs. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot with a quiet, simple delivery and is a quick worker on the mound. I profiled Espino for BP Milwaukee back in March and made note of his expansive repertoire of pitches. He’ll come after hitters with a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup, but his best pitch is his 12-6 overhand curveball.
— Brewers Prospects (@BrewerProspect) May 18, 2017
Espino doesn’t throw tremendously hard and sits in that 88-92 MPH range with his fastball. The profile is built around guile and pitchability; this approach features heavy use of that Uncle Charlie, which he will run up there between 73-76 MPH and throw in any count to any hitter and easily spot for strikes. Espino displays plus command of his arsenal, having walked just 1.8 batters per nine during his 92 AAA appearances while routinely posting stellar CSAA totals. He can get some swings and misses, especially with the curve, and generates a fair amount of ground balls, too; he has induced them at a 49 percent clip this season. Home run balls have been a bit of a bugaboo this season, but pitching in Security Service Field no doubt has something to do with that.
Immediate Big League Future: It has taken 11 long years for Paolo Espino to earn his first call-up to the big leagues, and it might wind up being a relatively short one. As mentioned previously, Junior Guerra is nearing his return from the strained calf muscle that he suffered on Opening Day. Guerra will make one more rehab start tomorrow with AA Biloxi and could be ready to return as early as May 25th. Depending on performance, that could mean that Espino may receive only one start before an opening needs to be created in the rotation. Perhaps if he pitches well against the Cubs and Zach Davies (5.44 ERA) struggles through his next outing, it will buy Espino more time in the starting rotation. That being said, the profile for Espino is one of a back-end type starter or swingman at the big-league level. He’s never been considered a top prospect and has only garnered one mention in the BP Annual, back in 2012. It’s quite an accomplishment for a player even to just reach the big leagues, and for that Espino deserves a pat on the back, but his role going forward is likely as rotation depth.
Fantasy Take: Like I said, this could very well be a one-start cameo for Espino at the big league level. He’ll be facing the defending-champion Cubs during an afternoon game at Wrigley Field, and will have a tall task keeping their talented lineup in check, so it’s a tough call to determine if he’s worth picking up even if you need a starter. If Espino does wind up becoming a mainstay in the starting rotation, his fantasy value will be driven by a low WHIP thanks to his minute walk rate. His strikeout rates will likely be about average, and PECOTA projects him for a 4.27 ERA. That would be a solid real-world contribution to his big league team, but probably wouldn’t be overly useful to your fantasy squad.