Is Santiago Espinal even guaranteed a roster spot when he returns from injury?
By Paul Taylor
As announced earlier this week, the Blue Jays placed Santiago Espinal on the 10-day injured list with right hamstring inflammation. The move was made retroactive to May 21, with Otto Lopez being recalled from Triple-A Buffalo. Since then, Lopez has been returned to Buffalo with Ernie Clement getting his contract selected.
The timing of Espinal's injury was unfortunate, given his form of late with the bat. He had recorded six hits in his past five games, including three in his most recent outing versus the Baltimore Orioles.
A poor season to date with the bat
Despite this recent form however, the 28-year-old has struggled as a whole on offense in 2023, with just one homer and seven RBI. His slash line of .205/.266/.274 and a .540 OPS project to career single-season lows.
Espinal's struggles have seen him split playing time at second base with Cavan Biggio and Whit Merrifield. Biggio has similarly struggled this season, whereas Merrifield has been a solid contributor.
Combined with the possibility Clement could put on a good showing in the coming games, you have to wonder what will become of Espinal? Is he even guaranteed a roster spot when he recovers, or could he be optioned to Triple-A?
A falling (All) Star
To even ask this may well be considered asinine by some, given we are discussing a player who was an All-Star just last year, albeit as a replacement. However, it has to be noted his struggles specifically on offense actually started during the 2022 campaign.
You can essentially split Espinal's year into two halves, at least from a productivity standpoint. In the first half of 2022 he had six homers and 37 RBI, compared to one and 14 respectively between July and September.
Given the rise and fall of the Santiago, Dominican Republic native last year, which of the two versions is closer to the real him? The Blue Jays understandably hope it is the version who lit it up during the first half of the 2022 season.
In this respect, there is reason to believe Espinal still has the ability to revert to the early part of his career and succeed offensively. For what it's worth, he also showed his potential in the pressure-packed environment of the playoffs, with two hits in four at-bats versus the Mariners.
Of course potential can only carry you so far, if you don't actually realize it and produce on a consistent basis. Herein lies the issue for Espinal, with his slash line and OPS for this season considerably below his career averages of .274/.331/.368 and .699.
Defence also an issue
From a defensive perspective, there is additional reason for concern if the 2016 10th round draft pick doesn't rediscover his bat. Consider that his fielding percentage of .990 was one of the best in the Majors last year at second base, for those who qualified.
By comparison, Espinal has seen his fielding percentage drop to .945 in 2023. This puts him considerably further down the list for second basemen, albeit in only 18 appearances at the position.
Overall, this is a key period for Espinal in his major league career. While his talent is not in dispute, the knock-on effect of his injury could easily have negative ramifications, at least in the short-term.