David Espinosa was a first-round draft pick who didn’t understand the importance of driving in a runner from third base with less than two outs.
His development was hampered, he said, by coaches who were either too eager to offer unfounded suggestions or apathetic toward his advancement.
It’s too late for Espinosa to change those aspects of his baseball career, but his plan is to ensure that fewer young players endure the uncertainty that often comes with playing in the minor leagues.
Espinosa, a 33-year-old Wingnuts outfielder, recently graduated from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, his home state.
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He returned to the Wingnuts because he finished school in December, after major-league organizations had largely finished their offseason hiring. But Espinosa has designs on coaching, where he can pass along knowledge from his 15-year career and correct the mistakes he believes were made by some of the people responsible for guiding him.
The Wingnuts begin defense of their American Association championship Thursday at Joplin, an expansion franchise.
“Having experiences like that, I could really give players good advice,” Espinosa said. “I just want to be involved with players where I can help them. I just don’t know which way, I just know that’s what my passion is.”
The Cincinnati Reds made Espinosa the 23rd overall pick in 2000 pick during a first round in which current major-league stars Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley and Adam Wainwright were selected. The Reds traded Espinosa to Detroit two years later, a deal to which a pros and cons list was symbolically attached.
The Tigers moved Espinosa out of the infield, where he made 74 errors in two seasons with the Reds organization, and allowed him to advance to Triple-A in 2005, when Espinosa was 23. He was also out of the system that he said ignored his back injury before the trade.
But the Tigers weren’t the team that invested a first-round pick in Espinosa, and they didn’t seem as interested in his development. The Tigers tampered with Espinosa’s swing, and he played sparingly initially in Triple-A, stunting his maturation until he hit .204 in 2007, his third season at that level.
“In ’07, I’m an everyday player, and I hit horrible,” Espinosa said. “I had the worst year of my life, and that was a critical year for me.”
Espinosa played 83 more games of affiliated baseball, in 2009 in Double-A with the Seattle Mariners, but for the last seven seasons he has played almost exclusively at the independent level.
The switch-hitting Espinosa is virtually the same player he was with the Reds and Tigers organizations, albeit with a bit less speed thanks to the back injury at the end of his Reds tenure. He has some power but is most adept at getting on base, topping a .400 on-base percentage the last two seasons.
The Wingnuts traded for Espinosa for the stretch drive of their championship season, after which many of his teammates retired. Espinosa is the only returner to Wichita’s starting lineup, and he’s still weighing how long he wants to play.
“The offseason is a reminder of reality,” Espinosa said. “At some point you’re going to have to decide to hang up the cleats. I thought I was done after last year. … Ideally, in a perfect world, I’d just win the Powerball and play baseball until the wheels fall off. But the chances of that happening are very slim.”
The end for Espinosa probably leads to coaching. His eyes light up when he describes helping out his former high school team in Coral Gables, Fla., where he has promised a new bat to the player with the most productive at-bats.
Negative experiences, which Espinosa describes in detail, could have led him away from baseball, but they have worked the opposite way. He’s not deterred by past teammates who have shunned his guidance, but motivated by the ways he believes he can help players avoid pitfalls.
“There are things that you’re not aware of (when you’re younger), just because you don’t know,” Espinosa said. “As you get older, you realize, ‘I wish I would have done this or that. I wish I would have known this.’
“It’s in the past. You just have to learn from it, and maybe pass down the knowledge to young players who need some wisdom.”
Wingnuts at Joplin
When: 6:35 p.m. Thursday
Where: Becker Stadium, Joplin, Mo.
Radio: KWME, 92.7-FM
Wingnuts’ opening-day roster
Jason Van Skike
Windy City (Indep.)
Bowling Green (A)
Lake Elsinore (A)
El Paso (AAA)
Kansas City (Indep.)
San Angelo (Indep.)