I know its unusual to rank a young prep pitcher as a #1 prospect. The odds of an 18 yr old hurler with recognized great potential to make it through the multi-year gauntlet of the minor leagues to arrive on schedule in the major leagues with promise intact, without injury or setback, are great. The odds, that is.
These odds have perhaps always been there, but the awareness of those odds has only penetrated prospect analysis fairly recently, roughly since the coining of the acronym/meme TINSTAPP. There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. Now the whole idea of the meme is that it somewhat overstates, in a tongue in cheek way, the travails a young pitcher must face as he tries to guide, nurse and develop that still not fully ravelled million dollar arm through years of stress and repetition. But of course in its obvious belaboring, it reveals a truth - the travails are real, the odds long.
I have Daniel Espino ranked #1 this year, both for his stellar performance and as yet unstinted progress, and felt it would be worthy to compare him to another stud prep hurler drafted by Cleveland in the first round way back in 2003 . That being He Who Shall Not Be Named - Adam Miller. The 2003 draft also included Michael Aubrey, Brad Snyder, Ryan Garko, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Aaron Laffey, but Adam Miller was recognized as having the highest ceiling, with a classic lean 6'4 frame, an electric arm and great control. Future ace, long awaited and much invested in.
This was pre-TINSTAAPP, and it can be argued that the nascent meme gained traction for tribe fans because of Miller. He started his career on fire, only to labor through many years of injury and rehab, finally falling off the prospect rankings when a tendon pulley in the middle finger of his throwing hand refused to heal or be successfully reconstructed after multiple surgeries. I followed him closely, his career coinciding with the ability to listen and then watch minor league games on the internet, to which I was glued. I couldn't help but feel that his middle finger was a metaphorical rebuke to the hopes of tribe fans wanting to recapture the success of the great teams of the latter 90's.
Adam Miller ended up having only two great years, free of injury. 2004 at age 19, and 2005, when he reached AAA at the end of his age 21 campaign. And yet! And yet, he was ranked our #1 prospect for FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS, 2005-2008, because of that potential, that promise - to be honest, the hope that injuries were temporary hurdles rather than real roadblocks. And after that hope withered in the face of reality, TINSTAAPP.
Now, Daniel Espino is not Adam Miller. He shares the electric arm, but in the age of TINSTAAPP, young pitchers are nursed through their early years with pitch count restrictions, heavily monitored off season training and nutrition, emphasis on flexibility and communication, etc. All in service to the realities of modern day pitching development, all to mitigate TINSTAAPP. And to my mind, it does shorten the odds. The year round attention to detail and feedback does make it more likely that an Adam Miller can survive the rigors. And a Daniel Espino. So, why not rank a Miller/Espino #1 these days? Adam Miller threw 134 innings in his first full year, with no set pitch counts. Espino logged 92 innings last year, his first full year, with a hard pitch count that rarely allowed him to qualify for a win.
As far as head to head, we can compare those two years, Miller's best and Espino's debut, each splitting time at low and high A ball, at roughly the same age of development:
Miller 2004: K/9 10.2 BB/9 2.7 Hits/9 7.2 BAA .225 ERA 2.95
Espino 2021: K/9 15.1 BB/9 3.8 Hits/9 6.3 BAA .192 ERA 3.22 (aggregated ERA/FIP/xFIP)
Miller's control of his deadly fastball/slider combo shows in his excellent walk rate, but its clear that Espino had the edge in pure stuff with his unreal K rate and excellent hit suppression. I'd say his campaign compares favorably with the 4 time #1 prospect.
Also, perhaps due to TINSTAAPP precaution, Espino finished incredibly strong, showing improvement at the higher level. His last 7 starts over Aug/Sept:
Espino Lake County: K/9 15.8 BB/9 2.5 Hits/9 4.5 BAA .145
The pitching development staff did a great job ushering Espino through his first full season, keeping his arm and body fresh, sharpening his mechanics, and it showed in his great finish. I'd say its likely he will debut at AA Akron, still on a pitch count, but with a slightly longer leash.
Paradoxically, in the age of TINSTAAPP, with the lessons of Adam Miller and others absorbed, the current regimen for young pitchers makes it, dare I say, safe to rank a 20 year old stud pitcher as the #1 prospect once again. TINSTAAPP(ESN). Except Sometimes Now. (I hope!)