July 6, 2022

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Espino spins hitless outing

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Welcome to the Guardians prospect update, where you’ll find news, promotions and standout performances, all year long.

Espino unhittable in second start (April 16)
No. 2 prospect Daniel Espino put on a show in the first game of Akron’s Saturday afternoon doubleheader against Reading, tossing 4 2/3 hitless innings, walking three batters and striking out seven. The no-no continued after Espino’s departure, for a full six innings — a single to open the seventh inning would be the only hit allowed by an Akron pitcher in the team’s 11-0 victory.

The 21-year-old right-hander has lived up to his ranking in Cleveland’s stacked farm system thus far in 2022. His smooth transition to Double-A competition hasn’t come as much of a surprise, however, following a 2021 season in which he struck out an astonishing 152 batters in 91 2/3 innings between Single-A and High-A. Espino showed how well his stuff already plays to big-league hitters in Spring Training, where his electric fastball topped out at 102 mph.

Williams dominates in second start (April 16)
There’s a reason the most common name discussed throughout Minor League Spring Training was No. 7 prospect Gavin Williams. Every hitter who made their way through the media room noted that he was the most difficult hurler to face in live batting practice. Now two starts into his Minor League season with High-A Lake County, he’s already proving why that was the case.

After four scoreless innings in his first start, Williams followed that performance with 11 strikeouts in 4 2/3 frames. Through 8 2/3 innings this season, he’s already racked up 17 strikeouts with three walks.

Williams has a mid-to-high 90s heater that can easily hit triple digits. He spent the offseason improving his breaking pitches to make his arsenal even more deadly. When talking with people in Cleveland’s player development staff or other prospects, the word “effortless” was often used when describing Williams on the mound. And if his success continues, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him advance quickly through the Guardians’ system.

“It definitely makes me smile a little bit when people are already talking about me,” Williams said during Spring Training, “but I’m gonna try not to let that get to my head early. I still have a job to do; I haven’t even gone through my first year, so I haven’t really proved anything [to] anybody.” — Mandy Bell

Kwan keeps incredible whiff-less streak alive (April 12)
Steven Kwan has turned heads throughout the realms of baseball with his offensive performance this season. With another game in the books after the Guardians’ 10-5 win over the Reds on Tuesday at Great American Ball Park, nothing has changed.

Cleveland’s fifth-round pick from the 2018 MLB Draft out of Oregon State still has yet to swing and miss at the plate through his first five games at the Major League level, maintaining a professional streak that goes back to his time as a member of the Guardians’ Triple-A affiliate in September 2021. More »

Kwan hasn’t swung and missed yet in 2022 (April 11)
KANSAS CITY — Is Cooperstown calling yet?

Steven Kwan has found himself in the brightest of all spotlights after a strong opening series to his first big league season, punctuated with his first career triple, two more walks and a little more history in the Guardians’ 10-7 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.

With a triple and two walks (in addition to his 8-for-10 efforts entering the day), the club’s No. 15 prospect has reached base 15 times in his first four MLB games — the most any player has logged in his first four career games since at least 1901. Full story »

Kwan making strong first impression (April 10)
Steven Kwan
 may be everything the Guardians have been searching for over the last few seasons. The problem is, the team needs more than one spark in its lineup to start to see success.

Kwan has been in the Majors for all of two games, and has already captured the heart of the fanbase with his plate discipline, bat-to-ball skills, baserunning and defense — all of which were on full display in Cleveland’s 1-0 extra-inning loss to Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium.

Aside from the strong pitching the Guardians have received thus far, Kwan has been the lone source of optimism this season. It’s only been two games, which is a ridiculously small sample size, but in a time when some could easily get overwhelmed by the jump to the big leagues, Kwan has demonstrated each of the tools that the organization has raved about throughout his Minor League career, showing why it’s easy to believe he can have a successful career in the Majors. Full story »

Top pitching prospects off to dominant starts (April 9)
Daniel Espino and Xzavion Curry, Nos. 2 and 23 on the Guardians Top 30 Prospects list, respectively, were dominant in Double-A Akron’s 3-2 loss to Erie.

Espino got the start and threw 40 of his 64 pitches for strikes. The right-hander yielded two runs on three hits, but also racked up nine strikeouts over four innings in his Double-A debut. Curry, making just his second career appearance at the Double-A level, followed up with 4 1/3 scoreless frames.

A seventh-round pick from the 2019 Draft, Curry threw 54 of his 81 pitches for strikes, gave up four hits, walked one and struck out seven. William Boor

Gonzalez “might really get dangerous” (April 1)
We knew it wasn’t going to be Oscar Gonzalez’s time just yet. Entering camp, there wasn’t an expectation that the 24-year-old was going to crack his way onto the Opening Day roster. This was merely a chance for him to be able to show the strides he’s made in his development since joining the organization in 2015.

And he’s given them a reason to dream.

Gonzalez had a good showing at camp even in his short period with the big league team, going 6-for-19 (.316) with two doubles, one homer and six RBIs. He split the 2021 season between Double- and Triple-A, owning a collective .293 average with an .871 OPS. Even in this short sample size, he looks like an answer the big league club has been searching for.

His biggest concern thus far is his strikeout rate. Even though he racked up 31 homers with 83 RBIs last year, he struck out 112 times in 121 games. While he’s certainly caught plenty of fans’ attention and has put himself on the club’s radar, he’ll just need to show improvement with his plate discipline before being able to take that next big step.

“There’s a lot to like,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said of Gonzalez. “You look at the body. He’s still kind of a work in progress, or I’d say he’s more raw in the outfield. That’s OK. He’s pretty young. At the plate he’s ultra-aggressive, but he also has the ability to drive the ball to right-center.

“He’s never going to be a high walk guy, that’s OK. But if he swings at enough good pitches, he might really get dangerous.” — Mandy Bell

He caught a fly ball for the second out of the frame and later fielded a single to center field off the bat of Will Toffey. In the next inning, third baseman Jason Vosler smashed a double with a deep drive over Valera’s head. He later made an outstanding sliding catch on a sinking line drive off the bat of Luis Gonzalez for the final out in the seventh.

Valera walked to lead off the top of the eighth and struck out in the ninth.

“We tell them all of the time that it doesn’t matter what inning they play in, it’s an honor to play in a Major League game,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “The young kids have done a good job. They come in and they have some enthusiasm and that helps us.” — Jesse Sanchez

Jones and Freeman waiting to be cleared for game action (March 18)
Fans will have to wait to see what two of the Guardians’ top prospects can do in Cactus League play.

Nolan Jones returned to camp after having ankle surgery over the offseason, but he started dealing with back soreness that has sidelined him from major activity so far this spring. He’s slowly started to begin throwing, hitting and running, but the team has yet to determine a time frame for him to return to game activity. The third baseman is a big question mark heading into the 2022 season, considering he’s coming off of a shaky year in which he attempted to balance development while trying to transition from third base to the outfield to help make him more versatile defensively. But until he’s back to full strength, the team can’t determine what his best path forward (mostly defensively) will be prior to camp breaking.

Infielder Tyler Freeman underwent surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder last year and started experiencing soreness in the area just prior to reporting to camp. He’s been able to do his regular throwing program and defensive work since the injury is to his non-throwing arm. The 22-year-old is expected to resume a hitting progression in the upcoming week. Like Jones, Freeman has not been given a time frame for when he’ll return to game activity. Mandy Bell

Espino catching big leaguers’ attention (March 12)
There’s a reason Daniel Espino was a first-round Draft pick and is ranked as the Guardians’ No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Soon after he was drafted in 2019, he had already made it out of Rookie ball, joining Class A Short Season Mahoning Valley that same year — the first Cleveland player drafted out of high school to do that since Francisco Lindor in 2011.

After the loss of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, Espino returned in ’21, pitching to a combined 3.73 ERA with 152 strikeouts in 91 2/3 innings between Low-A Lynchburg and High-A Lake County. His strikeout rate and impressive arsenal caught his organization’s attention — so much so that while Espino was throwing live batting practice to a few teammates on the back fields at Goodyear, Ariz., on Saturday, Guardians outfielder Josh Naylor stopped in his tracks on another field to watch Espino throw, as assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez yelled for anyone to tell him who the young kid on the mound on Field 4 was.

Here’s what the experts at MLB Pipeline have to say about Espino and why it’s so easy for his club to be excited about him:

Espino works at 94-97 mph and can touch triple digits with his fastball, imparting running life on his four-seamer and heavy sink on his two-seamer. He backs up his heat with a pair of bat-missing breaking balls, with his low-80s slider sharper and grading better than his high-70s curveball. His changeup is more of a work in progress that gets too firm at times but also features some promising sink. Mandy Bell

Burns’ best off-field pitch is for charity (March 9)
Tanner Burns, ranked as Cleveland’s No. 11 prospect by MLB Pipeline, said he’s overtaken by intense competitiveness to win and fearlessness of attacking hitters. But when he steps outside of the white lines, he transforms back into the happy, positive guy everyone in his personal life knows him to be. But not everyone knows just how caring Burns truly is. Story >

First-rounder Williams turning heads at camp (March 8)
In a mass of over 100 Minor League players at Cleveland’s camp, it’s truly hard to have one stand out above the rest, yet somehow, right-hander Gavin Williams seems to have found a way.

A handful of position players filed in and out of the media room in Goodyear, Ariz., all noting that Williams has been one of the toughest at-bats they’ve had this spring. The 22-year-old was selected in the first round (23rd overall) of last year’s Draft out of East Carolina. In his 2021 collegiate season, he pitched to a 1.88 ERA, with 130 strikeouts and 21 walks in 81 1/3 innings (all but three of his outings were starts).

“It’s effortless,” shortstop Jake Fox said. “Effortless 100 miles per hour. He’s got four pitches, so it’s going to be hard if you go down 0-1. It’s a tough at-bat.”

Williams has made a handful of appearances in Minor League simulated games on the back fields at the team’s Spring Training complex and has faced a lot of his teammates in live batting practice. On Tuesday, he worked two frames in a simulated game and looked sharp in his first inning.

His second frame was nearly as efficient before he was asked to stay on the rubber for a couple more batters after the third out, which is when his command started to get away from him. However, the movement on his pitches has been impressive and the pop of the catcher’s mitt when he fires a fastball across the plate is unlike anyone else in camp.

“It’s the easiest 98 to 100 [mph] you’ll ever see, I think,” Guardians pitching coordinator Joel Mangrum said. “At least from a kid that age.” Mandy Bell

Curry not taking foot off gas (March 5)
Heading into last season, right-hander Xzavion Curry had to sneak his way into the Guardians’ Top 30 prospects at No. 30. Before 2022 gets underway, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his name climb higher in the rankings.

Neither Curry nor Cleveland really knew what to expect from the young prospect heading into the 2021 season, considering he hadn’t pitched in nearly two years. While every Minor Leaguer dealt with the canceled 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Curry’s junior year at Georgia Tech was cut short in 2019 after he suffered a right shoulder injury. Because of that injury, he had no idea which club was going to take him in the ’19 MLB Draft.

After sitting through six rounds, Curry breathed a sigh of relief when Cleveland selected him in the seventh, but instead of being thrown into the Minor League mix, he immediately began a rehab program to get his shoulder healthy. After COVID-19 canceled everyone’s plans in 2020, Curry’s anticipation to finally get back on the mound was greater than ever.

“There are always nerves,” Curry said, when asked about pitching in a game after going over two years since his last competitive outing. “But I try to turn my nerves [into] more energy. Especially in games, [I] just use that adrenaline and nervousness to keep myself in check. Like, don’t speed up, don’t go too fast, just keep everything in the same flow and keep going.”

That mentality paid off. Curry hasn’t showed an ounce of rust, and he had an exceptional first season in the Minors, collectively going 8-1 with a 2.30 ERA, 123 strikeouts, 16 walks and a 0.890 WHIP in 97 2/3 frames among Class A Lynchburg, High-A Lake County and Double-A Akron (most of his time was with Lake County).

“Seeing all that training I put in translate to the game,” Curry said, “and translate it in the way I wanted to in my mind [was awesome.] Really just going out there and just being dominant and being able to put the team in the best position every time.”

It was calming for Curry to see the positive results he knew he could have, despite having been sidelined for so long. But instead of allowing himself to relax, Curry knows he needs to keep his foot on the gas pedal to be able to continue to cruise through Cleveland’s farm system in 2022.

“For me, the key is just to remain consistent and to get better,” he said. “The key for me is just don’t forget what got me to have that good season. … Never really saying, ‘OK, I had a good season, so that means I’m good now.’ You know? It’s never really thinking I’m too good. I’m always trying to find different ways to get better.” Mandy Bell

After playoff experience, Brennan ‘can do anything’ (March 3)
The strengths and weaknesses of Cleveland’s depth over the past few years have been clear, as its starting pitchers continue to be dominant and its lack of outfielders causes headaches. The team has slowly started to find more answers to the outfield woes, but it’s still looking for more. Double-A outfielder Will Brennan might soon be an option that’s flown under the radar.

Brennan got off to a strong start in 2021, hitting .290 with an .809 OPS, 22 doubles, 25 walks and 43 strikeouts in 62 games with High-A Lake County. In August, he was rewarded with a promotion to a red-hot Double-A Akron team that had its eyes set on a championship run. Brennan helped the club accomplish that goal with a .280 average, a .729 OPS, six doubles, two homers and 20 RBIs in 40 games before the end of the regular season. And when Akron earned the chance to participate in the playoffs, Brennan soaked up every second of playing in an intense, high-leverage environment.

“You can do anything, I feel like,” Brennan said, when asked what he learned from the playoff experience. “I feel like the next step is obviously just playing in front of 30,000 [people]. That’s about it. Or 40,000, whatever it is. But every pitch mattered there. Every play mattered.”

Not only did the outfielder grow from the exposure to that atmosphere, he learned how to thrive in it. His team trailed by five runs in the championship game against Bowie heading into the eighth inning before Akron cut its deficit to 1. That’s when Brennan gave the RubberDucks another chance to take home the hardware, leading off the bottom of the ninth with a solo homer to tie the game in dramatic fashion. The team won on a walk-off single by catcher Bo Naylor a few batters later.

“That’s number one,” Brennan said, when asked how that moment ranked among his baseball memories. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Now, Brennan has turned the page on a fun and successful 2021 season to focus on improving for ’22, including becoming even more versatile in the outfield (working mostly on getting more comfortable in right field) and putting in more work on his swing as he slowly starts to see his power build.

All that effort over the winter is now on display for not only his Minor League coaches and the player development staff at the club’s Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., but also for Guardians manager Terry Francona and the big league coaching staff, who have collectively watched the Minor League simulated games as they wait for Major League camp to get underway — an opportunity the Minor Leaguers were not expecting to have.

“It’s a really cool opportunity for us to showcase what we have and what we can bring to the organization,” Brennan said. “And hopefully you give a good impression to them. I don’t know how many opportunities you get like that. Every day is like you don’t know who’s going to be watching you. [Simulated] games, we have like 80-90 people watching these games, it feels like. It’s insane. Backfield Arizona games? You don’t have that. It’s awesome.” Mandy Bell

Hankins nearing return after Tommy John surgeries (March 3)
Cleveland selected Ethan Hankins with the 35th overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. The right-hander had a tremendous amount of potential but also carried a risk of arm injuries after his senior season was bogged down with shoulder tightness. He owned a 2.55 ERA between Class A Short-Season Mahoning Valley and Class A Lake County in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with his trajectory in 2020. The righty had Tommy John surgery at the end of May 2021.

Since then, the club’s No. 21 prospect per MLB Pipeline has strictly followed his rehab program and is now clear to begin playing catch and participating in some less-intense activities in Minor League camp like pitchers’ fielding practice. According to Guardians director of player development Rob Cerfolio, the hope is to have Hankins back on the rubber in games by midsummer. Mandy Bell

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