Top Prospect #36: 1B Nate Espy

Nate Espy doesn't top any lists of the Phillies top prospects. He's not a familiar face and not necessarily even a familiar name to a lot of Phillies fans. Don't let that fool you. Nate Espy has talent, a solid work ethic and a character that is already at a major league level. His teammates and Reading Phillies coaches love the guy and it's likely that Phillies fans will love him too, if he ever gets to show his face in Philly.

Nate Espy's reputation preceded him to Reading. Unfortunately, the reputation wasn't a good one and it wasn't really all true. Word was that the Reading Phillies were getting a weak defensive first baseman and a kid that would quickly fall by the wayside when he hit AA. Espy heard the rumors and set out to prove them all wrong. He put in overtime on the field and worked with Reading hitting coach Rico Brogna to improve his offense. The results were good. Espy led all Eastern League first basemen in fielding percentage (.994) in 2002. He also picked up a big admirer in Brogna.

"Anybody who has Nate's work ethic should get a shot at the majors," remembers Brogna. "The kid was always ready to put in extra time and was always ready to listen to advice and work on his skills."

Offensively, Espy didn't set the world on fire in 2002. By his own admission, he was good, but needs to do better, hitting .267 with 14 homeruns and 76 RBI. By May, he was in the lineup, literally everyday and wouldn't miss a game until April of 2003, playing in 122 consecutive games for Reading.

Coming into 2003, Espy hoped for a promotion to AAA, but the promotion didn't come. He insists that he was okay with the assignment, but there had to be at least a small part of Espy that was disappointed. A month into the season, Espy was mired in the worst slump of his professional career and seemed somewhat lost at the plate. By the end of April, Espy's consecutive game streak was snapped and his average had dipped to .111 through the first month of the season.

With Espy slumping, another first baseman, Aaron McNeal was getting more and more playing time. Espy adjusted and chipped in with some key pinch-hits, but was still struggling. By the end of May, McNeal was the 800 pound gorilla and Espy was almost a memory, hidden at the end of the Reading Phillies bench.

Again, Espy's work ethic carried him. He stayed on the field and in the batting cage, working as hard as possible to get his job back. Slowly, things started to come around and by mid-June, Espy was teetering around the .200 mark. McNeal was now the one seeing more bench time as Espy pushed the newbie aside for a share of the time at first base. Even with all of the offensive struggles, Espy's defense was spectacular. In 88 games at first base, Espy made just four errors in 2003.

By the end of the season, Espy had pushed his numbers to a respectable level, hitting .242 with 9 homeruns. Not at all where he had hoped to be, but a big step up from where he started the season. A nine-game hitting streak and a string of hits in 16-of-17 games helped to push Espy's average throughout the latter part of the season. In one 17 game stretch, Espy went 21-50 (.420).

Espy will turn 26 shortly after the 2004 season begins and he is at that point in his career where he will be looking to move to AAA. Looking ahead, he knows that the first base job at Scranton will be wide open, but he also knows that Jim Thome has a grip on the job at the major league level. Also, coming up behind Espy is young Ryan Howard, who would hold the title of Phillies first baseman of the future if not for Thome.

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