Like it or not, the Guardians are pivoting. And the man central to that pivot is one of the men that was central to the team’s (limited) success in 2021, Amed Rosario.
As the organization has struck out on its meager and sparse attempts to bolster the team’s roster from the outside over the course of the off-season, manager Terry Francona and his staff once again get creative out of necessity. Much has been made of the team’s lack of adequate corner outfield options and while the few attempts made to bring in outside talent have been a failure, Francona and co. aren’t going to just throw their hands up in despair. If the outfield cannot be improved from the outside then solutions must come from within.
This is where Rosario comes in. Rosario was a career infielder in both the Majors and minors before the Indians traded for him preceding the 2021 season as part of the Francisco Lindor trade. The Mets had toyed with the idea of playing him in the outfield due to his lethal speed, but ultimately never made the commitment (outside of a grand total of one game in 2019). He came to camp for Cleveland presumably as the everyday shortstop in 2021 but as fellow trade-mate and shortstop Andres Gimenez impressed in Goodyear it became clear that plans were changing. By midway through Spring Training it seemed that Rosario might be usurped at short, but the team knew they still wanted him in the lineup. Shortstop might be the most important position in back of the pitcher on the diamond and Rosario had never been strong with the glove, to begin with. Meanwhile, Cleveland found itself with a hole in center field that needed to be plugged. The Indians would do what the Mets only talked about and decided to try Rosario in center.
And it was immediately a disaster. He made three errors in the first three innings of his first Spring Training game patrolling the outfield. But from there, it could only get better and it did get better with time and comfort. Come time for the regular season, Rosario would play center field against righties while the left-handed-hitting Gimenez covered short. He would then return to short himself against left-handed pitching, resulting in a semi-platoon that had Rosario playing every day in a sort of double duty. And ultimately, it wasn’t poor play that ended up getting Rosario removed from the outfield in 2021, at least not his own. He was a net average fielder in center, worth 0 Outs Above Average and committing no errors in regular-season play. But as the calendar turned to April and the games started counting, Gimenez started faltering at the plate. By mid-May he was back in the minors and the Guardians needed someone to play shortstop again. Even with the center-field problem still not figured out, Rosario once again became the man full-time at short.
And this seemed to give him a psychological lift. On the day that Gimenez was demoted, Rosario was slashing .212/.270/.327 with a wRC+ of just 64. After his full-time return to the infield, his stats went to .300/.335/.430 with a wRC+ of 108. Rosario remained a below-average shortstop (-3 Outs Above Average, 10 errors in 121 games), but he was a solid contributor to the offense that Francona could pencil into the 2-spot of the lineup day in and day out. He even put up Player of the Month-type numbers in August, hitting .372, slugging .584 and driving in 20 runs.
This brings us back to 2022. And this year the Guardians have a cavalcade of young but unproven shortstop talent that could potentially play the position in the Majors. Gimenez is still an option, but beyond him, there is the team’s #3, #4 and #5 top prospects Gabriel Arias, Bryan Rocchio and Tyler Freeman who all can play the position. Meanwhile, former prospect shortstop Yu Chang is currently hitting .462 with four extra-base hits in 13 at-bats in Goodyear. Ernie Clement is hitting .583 with a 1.538 OPS in 12 at-bats. Owen Miller has an OPS over 1.000 as well. Clearly, in none of these cases is a mere 12 or 13 at-bats cause to hand someone a starting job, but the window is clearly open for a young player to take the shortstop role. This sounds like a repeat performance of last spring, just with more options. If any of these young shortstops can take up the mantle, then Rosario could find himself in left-field every day for the Guardians. Francona has already directly addressed the possibility publicly. The difference in 2022 though is that even if the player that starts at shortstop on Opening Day falters, there are a plethora of other options outside of Rosario that could be tabbed next.
Granted, all of this speculation could also be for naught. Rosario has only played in three Spring Training games so far, but all of his appearances have come at shortstop.
To his credit though, Rosario appears open to playing wherever he is asked, as long as he’s in the lineup. Francona has said as much, and it’s really a credit to the professionalism that Rosario has shown since joining the G-Men. Only Jose Ramirez played more games, scored more runs, or hit more doubles than Rosario in 2021. If all is well in 2022, he will be a consistent force for a team that could really use it. And he would be that consistent force while (ironically) handling the inconsistency that could surround him.