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July 3, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Trade Analysis: Scouting Nick Longhi, Stanley Espinal and Imeldo Diaz

Sunday marked the beginning of the 2017-18 international amateur signing period, with the Red Sox making a big splash in having reached reported agreements for three signings of over $1 million. But with this the first international period under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the club entered with a hard $4.75 million bonus pool cap. With reported agreements with three Venezuelan players alone reaching $6.1 million—those with catcher Daniel Flores for $3.1 million, shortstop Danny Diaz for $1.6 million and shortstop Antoni Flores for $1.4 million—it was clear the organization would need to trade for more pool space.

In a series of moves Sunday morning, the Red Sox did just that, trading away three prospects for bonus pool space: the number 13 prospect in the just-updated SoxProspects rankings, Portland first baseman Nick Longhi (pictured above), to Cincinnati in exchange for $2.75M in space, and two Lowell infielders, third baseman Stanley Espinal and infielder Imeldo Diaz, to St. Louis. The Reds and Cardinals were both capped at spending $300,000 per player after exceeding their bonus pool during the previous season, thus they were both unlikely to spend their allotted pools—$5.25 million for the Reds and $5.75 for the Cards. 

Before analyzing what the club gave up, let’s look at what it gained. Daniel Flores is the second-ranked international prospect in the class by both Baseball America and MLB.com, and reportedly topped some teams’ lists. He draws raves for his defense, with both BA’s Ben Badler and MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez—from whom reports on these players in this article are sourced—reporting that scouts have called him the best defensive catcher for his age they have ever seen. He has recorded 1.8-second pop times in games, a figure that already grades out as plus to double-plus. He has the potential to be an elite defensive catcher, but the switch-hitter has shown the ability to perform well offensively as well, flashing above-average raw power during batting practice.

Diaz was ranked seventh in the class by Baseball America and 13th by MLB.com. Badler says that he has one of the best combinations of hitting ability and power in the class. He may need to slide over to third base eventually as he fills out, where his plus arm will remain an asset.

Antoni Flores ranks 35th on Baseball America’s list and 20th on MLB.com’s. In contrast to Diaz’s bat-first profile, his calling card is his glove. Sanchez notes that scouts praise Flores’ defensive actions and athleticism. Badler notes that Flores will need to stay in the middle infield, and that many scouts project him to hit in the bottom of a lineup. 

Moving to the players the Red Sox traded for pool space, Nick Longhi is the best prospect of the three dealt, having already reached Portland at the age of 21. Longhi got off to a slow start in April, but has been coming around of late, and hit .262/.306/.401 in Portland with six home runs and fifteen doubles in 252 plate appearances. Longhi was a 2013 30th-round pick out of Venice High School in Florida, although he was born in Springfield, Mass. and chose to sign with the Red Sox for a $440,000 bonus rather than attend LSU in part because he was a life-long fan. 

Longhi has a solid, muscular frame, listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. Longhi has always been young for his level and has made steady progress through the system, showing a solid hit tool and frame that should allow him to hit for power. However, he hadn’t tapped into his power potential prior to this year. He has minimal remaining physical projection, but is a solid athlete and looks the part. 

Longhi retooled his swing prior to this season to generate more lift in an attempt to generate more power. In batting practice, Longhi will show plus raw power, but he has always hit too many balls on the ground. This year, Longhi switched to a leg lift timing device and altered his swing path. The changes have taken time to get used to, and Longhi’s timing was noticeably off early in the season, as he was getting his front leg down too late. Recently, Longhi has apparently started to get comfortable with his new mechanics and put together a .292/.346/.444 line since May 1, with 14 of his 15 doubles and 4 of his 6 home runs. Long-term, Longhi projects as a solid-average hitter with average power potential, but his power projection could change if he continues to improve his fly ball rate and generates more lift.

Defensively, Longhi primarily has played first base, but also has gotten time in the outfield. He is athletic enough for the outfield and has an easy plus arm that is wasted at first base. At first base, Longhi has above-average potential. He is agile coming off the bag and has soft hands, confidently scooping throws in the dirt. He has good range and footwork around the base. Longhi hasn’t gotten many reps in the outfield over the past few years and looked a little rusty when I saw him out there this year. His reads were a tad slow and he wasn’t taking the most efficient routes, but that is to be expected given his lack of game time out there. 

Longhi has always been a tough player to project at first base. If he can tap into his power and continue to hit, he has everyday potential, but if not, he projects in a bench role. Bench players who only play first base are a rarity these days, so if Longhi can also play the outfield it helps his future prospects. His profile fits well in the National League, where position versatility is vital. With the Reds unlikely to use up all their bonus pool while facing penalties for going over their international bonus pool allotment last year, they get a prospect with upside for money they weren’t going to use. For the Red Sox, Longhi was one of the more interesting hitting prospects in the upper minors, but they have Sam Travis ahead of him on the first base depth chart who is already in the majors. Longhi also had to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and with the Red Sox looking at a potential logjam with many players fitting that description, moving him makes sense to start to alleviate some concerns there. 

In a separate deal, 20-year-old third baseman Espinal and 19-year-old shortstop Diaz were dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals. Both are in their third pro season and were off to slow starts, albeit in very small sample sizes, with Espinal hitting .185/.241/.259 in 29 plate appearances and Diaz .208/.269/.333 in 26 plate appearances. Each topped out in the 50s of the SoxProspects rankings, but neither was ranked at the time of the trade.

Of the two, Stanley Espinal is slightly more interesting. Signed out of the Domincan Republic for a $10,000 bonus in February 2015, Espinal has a solid frame that has filled out the last few years. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, but looks heavier than that. He’s not the most athletic player, but looks the part and still has some projection in his upper body. Espinal’s best present tool is his arm, which grades as plus though his accuracy suffers due to sloppy footwork. Espinal’s lateral range is good, but he doesn’t look comfortable charging the ball and his hands aren’t great. At the plate, Espinal starts slightly open in a slight crouch and uses a leg lift. He has a slight hitch in his swing, bringing his hands down and back up in his load. Espinal has some raw power, but is very raw at the plate and is still in the early stages of developing his approach. His pitch recognition is poor and he really struggles picking up spin. He’s a lottery ticket at this point, but has some upside if he can figure things out at the plate.

Imeldo Diaz was signed out of Venezuela on July 2, 2014. He has played primarily shortstop since signing, but has also played second base and third base. Diaz has an average frame and is heavier than his listed 6-foot-0, 155 pounds. He has a thick lower half and lacks athleticism. He likely will have to move off of shortstop to second base eventually. He has the actions and soft hands for short, but his range is minimal due to his slow feet. He also has only an average arm that is unlikely to play in an everyday role on the left side of the infield. At the plate, Diaz has a long swing and fringy bat speed, and he likes to get his hands extended. He starts square and uses a leg kick. His front side tends to open early and he gets happy feet at the plate. He lacks power, and it isn’t likely to ever be a part of his game, and he is also a below-average runner. Like Espinal, Diaz is a lottery ticket with a long way to go developmentally. 

Photo credit: Nick Longhi, Stanley Espinal and Imeldo Diaz by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.

Chris Hatfield is Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.