David Espinosa was on a scouting trip in the summer of 2016 when he stumbled on the pitcher who made his big-league debut Monday for the Marlins. It was an improbable discovery, a needle-in-the-haystack find at the bottom of baseball’s food chain, in a league of last resort.
That pitcher, Trevor Richards, might now be working a job in law enforcement had Espinosa not chanced upon him in the course of his job, scouting players in the independent Frontier League, where you’ll find teams such as the Traverse City Beach Bums, Normal CornBelters and Washington Wild Things.
“This might sound crazy,” Espinosa said. “But there are Major League-caliber players in all those leagues. People just assume that it’s a glorified men’s league. But it’s not.”
It’s something Espinosa knows from firsthand experience. A first-round draft pick in 2000 out of Gulliver Prep in Coral Gables, Espinosa never made it to the Majors. He drifted around in the minors for nine years before moving over to an independent league — the American Association — and closing out his career in 2015 with the Wichita Wingnuts.
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“They really love baseball if they’re playing independent ball,” Espinosa said. “They’re hungry and they want to prove themselves.”
Which was the case with Richards.
Richards, 24, had played at Drury University, a Division II school in Springfield, Mo. But with a 90-mph fastball that didn’t open anyone’s eyes, he went unnoticed and wasn’t drafted.
That didn’t deter Richards from his dream, and he went to play for the Gateway Grizzlies in Sauget, Illinois, (with a population of 159) just across the river from St. Louis and within driving distance of his hometown of Aviston, Illinois.
“I enjoyed the Frontier League,” Richards said. “I lived at home and it gave me my first opportunity out of college.”
The crowds were small.
“On weekdays, not much, next to nothing,” Richards said. “On weekends, if there were fireworks, there were more people. But, as a whole, it was pretty little.”
By July 2016, Richards had made a decision. If a pro team didn’t come calling by the end of the season, he would use his degree in criminology and find a job in law enforcement. He began putting out calls for work.
“That last year in Indy ball was probably going to be it if nothing happened,” he said. “I was looking at jobs, trying to figure out what I was going to do.”
And then he was discovered, purely by accident.
Espinosa, working for the Marlins, had flown to Kansas City with the intention of driving the 3 1/2 hours to Sauget to scout a couple of relievers for the Frontier League’s Otters, who were scheduled to play the Grizzlies.
But after he landed and checked the schedule, he realized he had made a mistake. The game wasn’t being played in Sauget. It was being played in Evansville — a drive of seven hours.
“It wasn’t Evansville at Gateway,” Espinosa said. “It was Gateway at Evansville. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I really screwed this up.’ I almost didn’t go.”
But guilt got the best of him. Evansville’s manager had promised Espinosa that he would use the two relievers, and the scout felt obligated. So he drove all the way to Evansville.
Richards happened to be starting that day for Gateway. And Espinosa took an instant liking to him.
“Right away I thought he was interesting,” Espinosa said.
While Richards didn’t pack a lethal fastball, his changeup was something to behold.
“His changeup is an anomaly,” Espinosa said. “According to analytics, the spin rate on a changeup is slower than it is for a fastball. We call it a ‘white ball.’ But the spin rate on his changeup is almost as fast as it is with his fastball.”
In other words, even though the changeup is thrown at reduced velocity, Richards’ best pitch was such that hitters had trouble distinguishing it from his fastball. Richards’ changeup wasn’t white.
“His is a put-away off-speed pitch,” Espinosa said.
Scouts traditionally grade players on a scale of 20 to 80, with 80 being the best score possible and one that is seldom given. Espinosa said Richards’ changeup is an 80.
Espinosa wrote up a report on Richards and sent it to one of the Marlins’ assistant farm directors. He also videotaped Richards and sent that in, as well.
“You hear about stories like this all the time, where a scout is watching a player and ends up seeing another player that you’re really not even there to see,” Espinosa said. “That was the classic example.”
Not long after Espinosa sent in his report, a pitching spot opened on the Marlins’ short-season minor-league team in Batavia, New York. The player development folks on the Marlins signed Richards to fill it.
“Trevor signed for zero dollars,” Espinosa said. “We just paid his buyout to the league, which was $3,000. Think about it. For $3,000, we could potentially get a guy who could create millions of dollars for a team.”
Richards appeared in just three games for Batavia before being promoted to Low A Greensboro. Last season, he moved up to High A Jupiter before advancing again to Double A Jacksonville.
He was named the Marlins’ organizational pitcher of the year.
Now he’s on the Marlins. In his debut, he took a shutout into the fourth before giving up three runs to the Red Sox and two more in the fifth on a Hanley Ramirez home run. Not every story can’t have a fairytale ending. Still, Richards showed signs that he belonged.
“Indy league players don’t move this fast,” Espinosa said. “He’s only had a season-and-a-half of development.”
Not even two years since that night when Espinosa watched Richards face the Evansville Otters, he was on hand at Marlins Park on Monday to see him face the Red Sox.
“No one has a crystal ball,” Espinosa said. “But he has done everything and more to get this opportunity. You never know. He may go out and be Rookie of the Year.”