Baseball is in Espino cousins' blood

Baseball in Espino cousins' blood

It looks like the extended Espino family might be trading in their Cleveland Indians baseball caps for Panama hats when the 2009 World Baseball Classic tournament rolls around.

First cousins Damaso, a catcher, and Paolo, a right-handed pitcher -- their dads are brothers -- have both been named to Panama's provisional roster for the upcoming event. Both Cleveland Indians prospects have solid shots at making the 28-man roster, which will be announced Feb. 24.

Damaso Espino, 25, originally signed with the Cincinnati Reds as a 16-year-old in 1999. He's hit .269 over nine pro seasons with the Reds, Royals and now the Indians, with whom he signed this past summer.

The switch-hitter began his career as an infielder, and between 2000 and '04 he played every infield position, primarily third base. He moved behind the plate in '05, where he has played ever since.

Paolo, 22, was drafted by the Indians in the 10th round of the 2006 Draft out of high school in Bradenton, Fla., where he had moved a few years earlier.

He made his pro debut the next summer, going 4-5 with a 3.66 ERA in 33 games (13 starts) with Class A Lake County, finishing third in the system with 116 strikeouts in 108 innings. He returned to the Captains staff in '08, posting a 3.16 ERA in 19 games before a brief move up to Class A Advanced Kinston. Armed with a fastball in the low 90s, a curveball and a changeup, he also moved from a bullpen role to a starting slot in June.

Both players were on the Indians' radar before joining the organization, thanks in large part to the fact that Lino Diaz, the club's Director of Latin American Operations, also hails from Panama and is the GM of the Panamanian World Baseball Classic squad.

In fact, Diaz was a coach and the Latin American Liaison with Cincinnati when Damaso Espino first signed as a teenager. He also got to see Paolo pitch in high school in Panama.

"We didn't sign him at that point but we told him he had good tools and other options, among them coming to the United States to finish high school," Diaz recalled. "It was one of those cases where we thought that would be his best option."

Both cousins already have significant national team experience with Panama, including having played for their country in the inaugural '06 World Baseball Classic.

Paolo also pitched for Panama in the '04 World Junior Championships, where he struck out 16 batters in 9 1/3 innings, as well as having pitched for them in the Olympic qualifying tournament and the Caribbean Games as a teenager in '06.

"Any time you get that kind of exposure and competition, it's good for you and it has to help you in your ups and downs in the Minors," said Diaz of the opportunity for the club's prospects to participate in international competition. "Even Winter ball is very helpful in your development in the Minors."

Damaso Espino's versatility, along with his outstanding makeup, are his two strongest attributes and will come into play as the Indians determine whether he'll start the '09 season at Double-A Akron or Triple-A Columbus.

"If he's at Triple-A he'd be playing other positions, but if he's at Double-A he'll just be catching," said Indians farm director Ross Atkins. "He's an extremely intelligent player, very disciplined and extremely committed."

Atkins is equally high on his up-and-coming younger cousin.

"He's an athletic right-hander with an exceptional feel for his breaking ball and changeup," Atkins said. "He has a consistent delivery and his breaking ball flashes above average. "

Diaz echoed those sentiments.

"These are two very good guys," he said, "who are very dedicated and very passionate about baseball."

Other Indians Minor Leaguers on Classic rosters
OF Cirilo Cumberbatch is on the provisional Panamanian roster. The 22-year-old switch-hitter, one of three Panamanian prospects, is very athletic with a strong throwing arm. In five seasons as a pro, he's risen to Class A Advanced Kinston, where he hit .236 in '08. The previous year he batted .300 in 82 games at Class A Lake County.

RHP Chen-Chang Lee is on the Chinese Taipei provisional roster. The sidearming 22-year-old has not yet pitched professionally stateside, having just signed in September after pitching in the 2008 Olympics.

RHP Sung-Wei Tseng is on the Chinese Taipei provisional roster. The 5-foot-10 Tseng was 0-8 with a 5.27 ERA in 30 games, three of them starts, at Kinston in '08 and then posted an 8.80 ERA at Double-A Akron in nine games out of the pen. He'd gone 6-9 with a 4.05 ERA in his '07 debut at Kinston.

OF Nicholas Weglarz is on the Canadian provisional roster. Weglarz played for Canada in the '08 Olympics as well and hit .272 with 10 homers, 41 RBIs and nine steals for Kinston in 106 games this past season. The 21-year-old hit .276 with 23 homers and 82 RBIs at Lake County in '07 and has a good walk ratio as well, leading to a .382 on-base average vs. a .266 average overall in four pro seasons.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.