In 2018, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore spent the summer pitching for the TinCaps. A year later, it was fellow southpaw Ryan Weathers' turn in the Summit City. Both of them were first-round draft picks, among the best pitching prospects in all of baseball.
There was a time when right-hander Anderson Espinoza would have had his name right up next to Gore, Weathers, Adrian Morejon, Chris Paddack and the other top pitching prospects who have come through Fort Wayne in recent seasons.
Espinoza, 23, who will open the season in the TinCaps' starting rotation, was the No. 2 pitching prospect in all of baseball in the winter of 2017. He has not thrown a pitch in an official minor-league baseball game since then, needing two Tommy John surgeries in the intervening years.
On Thursday, Espinoza is scheduled to start for the TinCaps against West Michigan. If he does, it will be his first appearance since Aug. 31, 2016. He was also a member of the TinCaps for that late-summer game nearly five years ago.
“It's exciting to see (Espinoza) back into an affiliate,” TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras said. “Hopefully he can get going again from where he left off, as one of the top prospects in '16. He's looked really good. ... He's definitely more mature, he's looked at as somebody we can lean on as an older guy, especially with the younger Latin guys.
“It's going to be exciting to see him get on that mound and start to perform under the lights again.”
Espinoza was the main prize the Padres received when they dealt left-handed starter Drew Pomeranz to the Boston Red Sox near the trade deadline in 2016. The 6-foot, 190-pound righty, then just three months past his 18th birthday, made seven starts in Fort Wayne to close the season and in his final two combined to throw nine innings and give up just two runs while striking out 10.
In that stint in the Midwest League, Espinoza hit 97 mph with his fastball, and Fangraphs called his curveball and changeup “dominant.” Then came the elbow surgeries, first in spring 2017, then again in spring 2019, making it unclear whether he would have pitched in 2020 even if the season had not been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The question now becomes whether Espinoza still has the electric stuff that made him a top-level prospect all those years ago. If he shows that he does, he could provide TinCaps fans some of the same thrills that Gore and Weathers did in the recent past.
Espinoza's TinCaps teammates say he looked terrific in spring training and preseason workouts at Parkview Field.
“We just threw a sim(ulated) game. and I mean, it's pretty impressive,” fellow starting pitcher Gabe Mosser said of Espinoza. “I was throwing with him to warm up and he was at 180 feet just throwing seeds to my chest, the ball wasn't dropping at all. It was pretty incredible. He's something special.”
Espinoza was slated for High-A Lake Elsinore at the start of the 2017 season before he initially got shut down with elbow discomfort prior to his first surgery. He'll finally pitch at that level for the first time with the TinCaps, who have moved up to High-A along with 11 other Midwest League teams this season.
He'll likely be brought along slowly at the start of the year, with limited pitch counts for his first handful of starts. Mosser will be a “piggyback” starter behind Espinoza on Thursday, meaning that both pitchers are likely to throw three to four innings at most.
The Padres will be looking intently not only at Espinoza's fastball velocity and the movement on his secondary pitches, but also his command, which was the one question mark in his repertoire before his injuries.
Even before the season begins, however, the Venezuela native has already gotten a vote of confidence from one of his battery mates, TinCaps catcher Jonny Homza.
“His fastball's pretty electric and he spins his curveball,” Homza said. “I think he's probably more excited than anyone to get back to playing. ... I'm sure he's excited to get going.”