Moosic, Pa. — Raynel Espinal has spent most of his seven years with the New York Yankees organization as a long reliever — only called on occasion to make a spot start.
In his first three seasons as a professional, he was strictly a bullpen arm.
It wasn’t until 2016, when Espinal first got to pitch on US soil, that he was told he was going to become a starter. He remembers the conversation.
“We just want you to go out there and get a few extra quality innings,” he recalled through a translator. “We don’t really care (about results). One of the main things we want to focus on with you is be able to attack the zone. We want you to focus on limiting your walks and being able to attack hitters.”
Espinal was excited. He was coming off a year in 2015 where he had not thrown at all due to shoulder issues.
And he always wanted to be a starter, dating back to when he was signed with the Yankees out of his hometown of Villa Gonzalez in the Dominican Republic back in 2012.
“I pride myself a little bit more in being involved in terms of the preparation day-to-day,” Espinal said.
Judging based off ERA, it was Espinal’s worst season to date. He finished with a 4.63 ERA in a career-high 70 innings (he had thrown just 61 innings in his entire career prior to the season). His strikeout rate decreased. Espinal was known to average nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever in his first two seasons. Now, it was just 8.4.
Despite all this, he climbed three levels within the Yankees minor league system, going from the DSL Yankees at the beginning of the season to ending with Low-A Staten Island.
So what happened?
Espinal, in those 70 innings, walked just nine batters — just three percent of the hitters he faced.
He went through a stretch of 31.2 consecutive innings without issuing a free pass, or the entirety of his time with the GCL Yankees East.
“I was able to (limit walks) for an extended period of time to prove that that was something that I had already excelled in and really done extremely well at,” Espinal said. “That put me in a good spot (for the Yankees) to be able to make decisions on me a little quicker to be able to move up the ladder as quickly as I have.”
Espinal immediately began his next season in the bullpen with Single-A Charleston. He pitched 38.2 dominant innings — walking four hitters — before a promotion to High-A Tampa at the end of June 2017.
Less than a month later, Espinal was called up to Double-A Trenton. He made his first appearance for the Thunder on June 27, 2017, throwing two perfect innings and earning his first win.
Espinal had only been in the United States for 13 months, and now was just two calls away from the big leagues.
Though, he still wanted to be a starter.
“I feel like I’m more empowered to be able to contribute in a way to help the team better.”
Espinal finished the year with Trenton, and pitched to a 1.09 ERA — just nine earned runs in 74.1 innings — and 15 walks.
His performance resulted in an invitation to Spring Training in 2018.
“It caught me by surprise,” Espinal said. “I was told that I needed to be ready for live BP (in February). I didn’t know at that point that they had actually invited me, but a few days later, they called me back and officially told me that I was going to be going to camp.”
He made four appearances before being assigned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The RailRiders continued to utilize Espinal as a long reliever, keeping him stretched out for some spot starts. He continued to throw quality innings. Just four of his 41 appearances ended with more than one earned run on his final line.
Espinal, again, earned an invitation to Spring Training in 2019.
“The two years consecutive I’ve been doing it have been a blessing,” he said. “At that point, it put me in a spot realizing how lucky and fortunate I was.”
Espinal is still with Scranton Wilkes-Barre, but he’s enjoying a new role. In need of arms, RailRiders manager Jay Bell assigned the now 27-year-old to the starting rotation to start this season.
“He’s been fine for us in that role,” Bell said. “He’s done well in both, so we feel pretty comfortable.”
Espinal is enjoying his second time around as a consistent starter. He can follow a routine now that he knows when he will throw, and has time to work and develop in between starts.
“I feel it’s the same kind of mindset in a way even though you have to prepare a little differently,” he said. “I’m able to have a better plan of attack when I’m starting because I’m able to go through a lineup and know how you want to go about that for the team you’re facing. Whereas a reliever, you have to go out there and you just want to execute because you don’t know who you might be facing exactly.”
In nine starts this year, he is 3-4 with a 3.89 ERA. He’s averaging over nine strikeouts per nine innings, and has walked 15 batters in 41.2 innings.
Bell said he could move Espinal back to the bullpen, should some other arms find their way to the RailRiders. But for now, Espinal is maximizing his opportunity, and waiting for his final call to the big leagues.
“The Yankees have given me a great opportunity and from day one I was able to be a guy who was put in a position to be able to not only excel, but develop,” he said. “I thank them for the fact that they’ve been able to care for me and put me in spots to be able to develop and be in the best position possible, because I know that may not be the case in every organization.”