Bulked-up Santiago Espinal continues flashing improved power at Blue Jays camp

CLEARWATER, Fla. — If you’re looking for Bo Bichette and Santiago Espinal around 7:00am on any given day of Toronto Blue Jays spring training, the Florida sun only just beginning to rise somewhere on the horizon, you’ll want to head to the covered infield adjacent the weight room and batting cages at the club’s lavish new player development complex in Dunedin.

And you’ll probably be late. The pair will have been there for some time, taking groundballs, fielding short hops, turning double plays. Drilling footwork, rhythm, timing. Talking reads, approaches, and shifts. Blue Jays infield coach Luis Rivera and coordinator Danny Solano will be there, too, fungo bats in hand, baskets of balls on either side of them, new wrinkles and layers in mind to throw at the young middle infielders they’ve been drilling early each morning for weeks.

“Every day it’s something different,” Espinal said. “Some new conversation about learning how to work around the bases, where to be, how to keep your feet moving, how to prepare, what our position should be in all these different shifts we’ll play during the game. That’s what it’s about. Everything needs to be game ready.”

It sure does. The regular season starts in 16 days, and, after Toronto acquired one of the game’s premier defensive third basemen in Matt Chapman, Espinal is set to receive the bulk of his 2022 playing time at second base, filling a position manned by a gold glove winner last season — the since-departed Marcus Semien — that comes with a catalog of defensive responsibilities in the modern, shift-laden game.

Thing is, the last time Espinal played second base consistently — or at all — was 2019, his first full season in the Blue Jays system after the club acquired him the year prior from the Boston Red Sox. It’s been a while. So, every day this spring, he’s on that turf infield with Bichette bright and early, before many of his teammates have even arrived at the complex, working for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour on every last aspect of the position.

But the other thing is, even if Espinal was still ticketed for third base, where he logged 81 games last season, and even shortstop, the natural spot he grew up playing, he’d still do this. The early work isn’t a spring training thing; it isn’t only temporary until it gets back up to speed at second. It’s an every damn day thing. Every damn day forever.

That’s what Espinal learned from Semien, the career shortstop who transitioned to second base with the Blue Jays last year and, oh, only went out and himself won a gold glove. Espinal watched Semien — a father of three and member of MLBPA’s executive subcommittee during a CBA year, mind you — regularly beat everyone to the park to complete an extensive fielding program that’s been part of his daily routine for over a half-decade.

Espinal saw up close the grinding, assiduous work of a quiet professional that, over years of steady, incremental progress, produces a sensational career like Semien’s. And now he’ll carry it forward wherever the game takes him.

“I’m trying to do the same thing he did,” Espinal says. “And last year we talked about it — how he learned second base so quick. And he told me that’s just the amount of work that you have to put in. There’s no shortcut. It’s every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s an early game, doesn’t matter what city you’re in — always be consistent, always take ground balls. So, I’m just following his lead.”

And the process didn’t just start when Espinal reported to Blue Jays camp this month. He’s been at it all off-season, fielding grounders at Nova Southeastern University and a collection of other “random parks where I know people” during MLB’s lockout. Closer to the end of the work stoppage, Espinal began training daily with Bichette and their teammates Josh Palacios and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., hitting, fielding and throwing together at a series of training centers in and around Miami.

Gurriel’s brother, Yuli, dropped in on the workouts, too, as did a rotating cast of big-leaguers such as Salvador Perez, Christian Vazquez, and Rene Rivera. Watching that veteran collection prepare during an off-season was an education not like unlike the one Espinal gleaned being around Semien in-season last year.

In short, those boys got after it in the weight room. And in the lunch room afterwards, too. If you want to get big you have to lift big, eat big. Espinal has. And the results are beginning to materialize in moments like this one against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday:

Yeah, Espinal’s got pop like that now after packing on 15 pounds over the off-season, finally overcoming a career-long struggle to add functional, sustainable weight to his 5’10 frame. He’d managed to put on some pounds here and there before but, inevitably, the next baseball season would begin, lifting and eating for muscle gain would take a backseat, and Espinal would quickly slide backwards, losing any progress he made as the grind of daily practice, nightly games, and weekly travel caught up to him. When it comes to training and nutrition, he hadn’t yet learned the lesson he got from Semien — if you want to make meaningful progress, you have to work at it every damn day.

So, at the end of 2021, a then 170-lbs. Espinal sat down with Toronto’s head of nutrition, Jeremy Chiang, to map out an off-season meal plan that forced him into an anabolic caloric surplus, mixing plenty of carbohydrates with healthy fats and adequate protein. Meanwhile, Scott Weberg, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, put Espinal on a dedicated hypertrophy program that had him progressively overloading intensity and volume in five-week cycles with deload and recovery weeks in between.

And then he got to work. Espinal’s not quite at Perez or Gurriel levels of mass and power — and with his frame, he never will be. But he did report to Blue Jays camp this month at 186-lbs, having added a considerable amount of muscle. The goal now is to maintain that weight throughout the season, continuing to lift appropriately and eat in adequate amounts to counteract the deleterious effect a 162-game season has on an athlete’s body.

“I don’t want to go back to where I was last year. I want to stay how I am right now and even gain a little if I can. So that when next offseason starts, I’m already ahead and I don’t have to make up ground,” he says. “I’m just so glad that we have a team of guys like Jeremy and Weberg who care so much about the players. We made a really good plan that wasn’t only going to get me to 185, but also maintain my mobility, maintain my speed, maintain all the things that I need when I’m playing baseball.”

And Espinal’s already demonstrating a difference in how the ball’s jumping off his bat. He’s been regularly turning around pitches at triple-digit exit velocities in batting practice sessions, driving balls to the opposite field wall that coaches would’ve watched die above outfield grass last season.

In a game against the Detroit Tigers on Monday, he rifled a single into right field that came off his bat at 106.2-mph The hardest ball Espinal put in play all of last season was 104.2. And then there was Espinal’s homer against the Phillies Wednesday, when he sat back on a 1-0 fastball and laced it over the left field wall at 104.4-m.ph.

Look, this is not to say Espinal’s turning into a slugger. Even double-digit home runs in a full season would be an accomplishment. But his average exit velocity last year — 84.8-mph — ranked within the bottom 10 per cent of the league. If he can increase that number and put the ball in play at a high rate of speed more often, better batted ball results ought to follow.

Ultimately, Espinal’s goal is for it to come naturally. Hitters will tell you the ball really starts to fly when you aren’t focused on power at all.

“Right now, all I’m thinking about is feeling comfortable at the plate,” he says. “Because I know when I’m comfortable, I’m going to drive the ball. I know that’s going to come — velocity will come. Because whenever I’m comfortable at the plate, I feel like I can do anything. So, I want to get to that place.”

It’s a work in progress, the continued education of Santiago Espinal. About to begin his third tour of the majors, the 27-year-old has an important role to play for a Blue Jays team with designs of contention. He’s being asked to relearn an old position; to stay up to speed at third base and shortstop, too, in case of emergency. Asked to give the Blue Jays a competitive plate appearance from the bottom third of the lineup and, hey, a little more pop every now and again wouldn’t hurt, either.

Which is why Espinal keeps crushing rice and chicken, lifting diligently, and getting up before the sun to hit that covered infield with Bichette. He’s seen first-hand what’s required to be successful at this level. How there’s no circumventing daily, assiduous work. And he’s been taking notes. Now, he’ll see how far the approach carries him.

“I got a little taste of the big-leagues in 2020 — all the nerves and all that stuff went away. In 2021, I came in, I thought I was ready to go, and I ended up learning a lot about what it takes. And now, this year, I know what to do already,” Espinal says. “This year is about making a plan and being consistent with that plan throughout the whole season. Making sure I do what I need to do consistently every day. I feel like if I do that, everything is going to play out well.”

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