A retrospective look at Santiago Espinal’s Blue Jay tenure

Ryley Delaney
28 days ago
In early December 2016, the Blue Jays signed Steve Pearce to a two-year deal worth $12.5 million.
Prior to the signing, Pearce had a solid career, slashing .254/.333/.441 with 66 homers in 1857 plate appearances while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Rays.
Pearce’s first season in Toronto was average, slashing .252/.319/.438 with 13 homers in 348 plate appearances for a 100 wRC+ and 0 fWAR. However, he started the 2018 season hot when he slashed .291/.349/.519 with four homers in 86 plate appearances for a 135 wRC+.
This led to a trade with the Boston Red Sox, the last American League East team he had yet to play for. With Boston, he finished the 2018 season slashing .279/.394/.507 with seven homers in 165 plate appearances, adding an additional 1.5 fWAR while also posting a 143 wRC+.
He was even better in the postseason, slashing .289/.426/.658 with four homers in 47 plate appearances, with a higher BB% (19.1%) than K% (17%), eventually winning the World Series MVP. As you can imagine, the prospect the Jays received had big shoes to fill for the Jays to “win” this trade”. Did he?
The prospect the Jays received was Santiago Espinal. The utility infielder didn’t make his big league debut until the 2020 season, where he slashed .267/.308/.333 with no homers in 66 plate appearances while regular shortstop Bo Bichette was on the injured list. In the 2021 season, Espinal made his mark.
Espinal became somewhat of a regular during the 2021 season, but didn’t post great numbers over his first two months. From April 10 to June 10, Espinal slashed .247/.286/.329 with no homers, and five extra base hits. He struck out 18.2% of the time, while only walking 5.2% of the time with six RBIs in 77 plate appearances.
On June 11, he was sent to the Buffalo Bisons and was back up with the Jays four days later when something clicked. From June 15 to the end of the season, Espinal slashed .342/.417/.443 with two homers in 169 plate appearances, including a higher BB% (10.7%) than K% (9.5%), finishing that stretch with a 138 wRC+ and becoming a valuable piece at the bottom of the lineup.
Not just that, but Espinal also filled a significant need for the Jays in 2021, he provided stability as an everyday third baseman. Cavan Biggio, who came off two fantastic seasons in 2019 and 2020, was set to be the third baseman, but due to injury and poor play, the Jays had to look elsewhere. Thank god they did, because Espinal was a fantastic defender that year for Toronto.
Espinal only played 551.2 innings at third base in 2021, but had eight Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and 5 Outs Above Average (OAA) in that time. Over a full season, it’s a very real possibility that he could have been nominated for an American League Gold Glove at the position if he continued this pace for another 500 innings at the position. There was one play in particular, though, that was Espinal’s best moment as a Jay.
The COVID-19 Pandemic affected everyone’s life and still does in some ways. For baseball, the Pandemic cancelled the entire 2020 minor league season and gave us an abbreviated 2020 season with less than 70 games. It was even worse for the Blue Jays, as the only Canadian team had to play all their games in Buffalo.
Unfortunately, the 2021 season was much of the same, as the Jays had to start the season all the way in Dunedin, Florida, before returning to Buffalo when the weather warmed up. However, they eventually returned to Toronto to play in front of 13,446 fans against the Kansas City Royals. In their first game back, the Jays had a 6-4 lead in the top of the ninth, when Espinal did this.
For younger fans like myself who weren’t alive when the Jays went back-to-back, the 2015 season is the pinnacle of greatness. Out of any year since, the 2021 season and more specifically this catch, was the closest I had to the feeling of “holy crap, they can actually win it all”.
Unfortunately, that was not the case as the Washington Nationals blew a lead against the Boston Red Sox in the final game of the season, which would’ve sent the Jays to a Game 163. Thus, they missed out on the playoffs and missed out what arguably could’ve been their best chance to win a World Series.
Although the team didn’t achieve success in 2021, Espinal continued his hot play in 2022. He started the season slashing .292/.349/.431 with two homers in 152 plate appearances for a 123 wRC+ from April 8 to May 23rd (a completely arbitrary day). By the time the All-Star break rolled around, Espinal was slashing .271/.320/.391 with six homers in 353 plate appearances for a 104 wRC+.
However, this didn’t stop Espinal from becoming an All-Star in the 2022 All-Star Game, as he replaced the injured José Altuve. Overall, Espinal finished the season slashing .267/.322/.370 with seven homers in 491 plate appearances for a 100 wRC+. This isn’t a bad total for a bottom of the lineup, glove first second baseman, as he also had a 4 DRS and 10 OAA in 945 innings at second that season.
There were glimpses of the hitter he was the two seasons prior in 2023, but it was a rough season for Espinal, both with the glove and the bat. Starting with the latter, he slashed .248/.310/.335 with two homers in 254 plate appearances with a 7.1 BB% and a 14.2 K%. Through his first two seasons, Espinal relied on a high batting average, but his .248 average was the lowest of his career.
Even worse was the decline of the glove. In 2021 and 2022, Espinal may have been a backup for parts of those seasons, but he consistently played one position for the most part. In 2023, Espinal moved into a role of the glove first utility infielder, and struggled defensively at every position he played. He played 304.2 innings at second base and had a -1 DRS and -3 OAA (remember, he put up Gold Glove-calibre numbers the season prior).
At third base, Espinal played 161 innings (compared to 83 the season prior) where he had a -1 DRS and a 2 OAA. At shortstop, which he only played 50 innings since the 2020 season, Espinal played 97.1 innings and had a 0 DRS and -2 OAA.
He went from a borderline everyday player in 2021 and 2022 to an unneeded player on the Jays roster in 2023 and 2024.

Thoughts on Espinal’s tenure with Toronto and how he’ll do with the Reds

People’s opinion of Espinal quickly changed. In 2021, he was one of the more beloved players on the roster, but in 2023, the general consensus seemed to not want him on the roster anymore. Personally, I choose to remember the catch and how well he filled in defensively in 2021 and 2022, on top of hitting for a pretty good average to turn over the lineup for the big bats.
With Ernie Clement having no options remaining and outplaying Espinal in the 2024 Spring Training, it seemed it was only a matter of time before Espinal was off the 26-man roster. Thankfully, the Blue Jays did right by him as they traded him to the Cincinnati Reds who desperately needed infielders. 
Edwin Arroyo underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and will be out for the season. On top of that, Noelvi Marte will serve an 80-game suspension for PED usage. Of course, their infield is set with Jonathan India at second base, Elly De La Cruz at shortstop, and Jeimer Candelario at third base, but Espinal will get a lot more opportunities with the Reds.
We here at Blue Jays Nation wish Espinal nothing but the best. The memories of him making the over the back bare hand catch in Toronto’s first game at Rogers Centre since 2019 will always be in our hearts.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter @Brennan_L_D.


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