Saturday, April 18, 2015

From The Front Office To The Field:
Joe Espada, Yankees' New Running Man

Originally published 3/7/15

By Barry Millman
One of the Yankees' more intriguing, and potentially beneficial personnel moves this offseason received little fanfare or media attention. However, it may yield significant dividends on the scoreboard.

Not long after the new year, a team press release noticed mainly for announcing the hiring of hitting and assistant hitting coaches to fill the duties of the fired Kevin Long- also mentioned an infield coach had been hired by the name of Joe Espada and that he would take Robbie Thomson's place in the third base coach's box during games.  

This hire may seem mundane, but if you're a Yankee fan, pay attention- it's eminently noteworthy.

The first and best reason to note it: In 2014, the Yankees scored the third fewest runs in the American League but led it in baserunners thrown out at home plate.

There are many reasons runners get thrown out and the guy in the coach's box can't bear the entire blame. Thomson has had the job since 2010 and the team has had some good years on his watch, but he seemed to lose the feel for it in a major way last season just when baserunners reaching third became an all too precious commodity. 

Some justified and applauded his aggressive attempts to challenge outfielders and manufacture runs, but the painful sight of the Yankees' aging and wounded veterans repeatedly grimacing and hobbling toward inevitable out-by-a-mile rally-killing shoot-downs, followed by too many post-game mea culpas, sealed his fate. In the end, it had become fair to question if  knowledge of his own baserunners and not of opposing outfielders was his problem.  

(Note: Mick Kelleher, the first base coach, got fired too.  Baserunning overall has been atrocious. A topic for another day.)

Regardless whether the death toll at home was Thomson's to bear or not, Espada's installation positively impacts the baserunning situation in many ways.

A second round pick in the '96 draft, Espada kicked around the minors playing for eight organizations in nine years. He learned a lot about the game along the way and about what it takes to play it at a high level.  He recognized he didn't have it, but his ability to recognize it and coax it out of others was spotted by the Marlins. They hired him as a hitting coach for their Low A affiliate and he rose through the ranks, impressing along the way until he became the big league club's third base coach.

He has served in that capacity with solid results for the Marlins for four years in a league where manufacturing runs on the basepaths is a critical component of the game plan- so much so that the Marlins wanted to lock him up and set him on the managerial track in 2013 by offering him a post as skipper of their High Single A Jupiter farm club. 

However, in perhaps an even bigger endorsement of his value, and a tribute to his own determination to continuing his education in the game, Espada spurned the Marlins' offer to accept one from Yankees GM Brian Cashman to be his special assistant. His job?  To scout and assess talent within the Yankee organization, and that's what he's been doing for the past year.

That's right, the Yankees' new third base coach was hired from right upstairs in their own front office. So it's a good bet he knows what kind of legs are underneath not only every Yankee, but every farmhand about to become one too. He likely has a whole binder on them just like the other Joe does on his bullpen. 

So this season, when a runner gets waved home, there's a more-than-reasonable chance it won't be just another dead man walking.

Also, if you're worried about fate dealing a cruel blow to Thomson  who has worn the Yankee pinstripes for 25 years, relax. With Espada bumping him from the third base box, Thomson won a promotion to the dugout to take the place of bench coach Tony Pena- who now has returned  to the first base coach's box where he served prior to joining Joe on the bench in 2009. 

And that, an anonymous Yankees scout told Field Generals, leads to yet another added value Espada brings to the baserunning situation.

"Joe and Tony both speak Spanish," the scout said. "With all the young Hispanic players coming up in our system, it will be helpful in game situations if they can say: 'Take one more step away from that bag and you're a dead man.' "