March 4, 2024

The hole left in the Guardians’ 40-man roster did not last long as Cleveland found their newest ballplayer in Wednesday’s Rule 5 Draft, selecting former Arizona Diamondbacks farm hand and current corner infielder Deyvison De Los Santos with the 10th pick in the draft.

For those that don’t know, the Rule 5 Draft happens every off-season during the winter meetings. The premise of the draft is that players who have been in a single team’s minor league system for a set period of time but have not been added to the organization’s 40-man roster are eligible to be selected by a new team. If a team selects one of these players then they must keep that player on their 26-man active roster for the entirety of the coming season (except when injured). If the player does not remain on his new team’s 26-man active roster for the entire season, he is returned to his original organization. The threshold for eligibility is age-based. Players who were signed at 18 or younger are allowed Five years with their organization before needing to be on the 40-man roster before being protected. Players signed at 19 or older have four years of safety.

The Guardians’ last Rule Five draftee was relief pitcher Trevor Stephan, who they selected from the New York Yankees with the 15th pick before the 2021 season. Stephan made it through the entirety of the 2021 season with the then-Indians, being used for most of the year sparingly out of the bullpen in mop-up innings or other games that were already decided, but being progressively exposed to heightened levels of leverage over time. The following year this paid off as Stephan became one of the most dependable pitchers at the back end of the Guardians bullpen in 2022, pitching to a 2.69 ERA in 63 2/3 innings and being one of manager Terry Francona’s most relied-upon pitchers in the post-season. While Stephan took a step back in 2023, especially in the second half (6.07 ERA, after posting a 2.54 ERA before the All-Star break), he is still one of the more notable selections of that 2020-2021 Rule 5 Draft (the other being Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo).

The backstory of the Rule 5 Draft aside, the Guardians have added a very young ballplayer to their active roster and seemingly intend to keep him with the Major League team for the entire season. De Los Santos will turn just 21 years old in June. He stands 5 foot 11 and weighs 185 lbs while swinging from the right side of the plate. He is projected to add strength to his frame and be a powerful player. In 113 games at AA Amarillo last season, he hit 20 home runs. Fangraphs rates his in-game home run power potential as a 60 on a 20-80 scale (60 being significantly above average). The young man swings to do damage, so much so that MLB.com rated him Arizona’s 5th best prospect (interestingly he is now Cleveland’s 12th best prospect despite Arizona’s minor league system being rated better than Cleveland’s- not sure how that computes).

As such, he very well could be a welcome addition to a Guardians team that is devoid of home-run power. The team’s biggest need this off-season is to find guys who are able to hit the ball over the fence. De Los Santos fits that profile. My guess is that they ease him into Major League action, as they did with Stephan a few years ago. Perhaps in the early going, he will only get opportunities to pinch-hit in already-decided games. That could lead to starting some games at DH. Ultimately, I think the goal may be for him to be able to spell Josh Naylor every so often at first base as well as DH fairly regularly as the season progresses.

That is, of course, assuming that things go well. That is definitely not a given. As stated, he is a young man with prodigious power potential. But at face value, there are major questions with De Los Santos’s greater game. For one, he has a reputation as an undisciplined free-swinger who has a horrific time diagnosing sliders. While his power potential may be a 60, his hit/contact potential is a 30 on the 20-80 scale (very significantly below average). A heavy dose of swings and misses seems to be an issue that has come about as De Los Santos progressed through minor league levels. He actually hit .306 while playing at three different levels in 2022, but that batting average was inflated by hitting .329 at low-A for the majority of the season.

However, after struggling so much that he hit .206 with just seven home runs through June in 2023, Arizona put him on the Developmental List for two weeks to work on a change in his swing and to clear his mind. Upon his return, De Los Santos hit .313 with 13 dingers in his remaining 51 games, showing growth and progression. Still, he hardly walked even when performing better in the second half. Arizona had planned to return him to AA to start the 2024 season, not thinking he was ready to progress to AAA, let alone the Majors. Even with those 20 home runs in 2023, he slashed .254/.294/.431 for the whole season. He was on pace to hit 27 home runs over 150 games, but somehow had an OBP of only .294, because of his free-swinging nature against minor league pitching.

Beyond his time at the plate, De Los Santos is also a poor fielder. Remember the 20-80 scale? Fangraphs rates his fielding tool at 20. That’s the lowest rating possible. To be fair, MLB.com rates him a 40, which is still below average but much better. Such lackluster fielding ratings are mostly due to De Los Santos possessing a horribly inconsistent throwing arm and a lack of quickness that’s typically needed to play the hot corner. While he has mostly played third base in the minors, his Major League present, and probably future, is likely at first base or at designated hitter.

So, De Los Santos is a right-handed hitting power prospect who struggles to recognize a breaking pitch, swings and misses a lot and is a butcher in the field, but could run into many home runs. I can’t lie. This feels like Franmil Reyes. This feels like Oscar Gonzalez. Yes, De Los Santos is five years younger than Gonzalez and six years younger than Reyes was when Cleveland released him, but De Los Santos has also never played an inning at AAA. He is effectively being rushed to the Majors. At least Reyes and Gonzalez played a position of need. De Los Santos plays positions that are already home to the Guardians’ best hitters.

Even with all of that negative though, De Los Santos is a low-risk attempt to add power to the roster. The worst thing that happens if he fails is that he gets sent back to Arizona. The key will be to find out whether or not he “has it” soon enough that he doesn’t become a waste of a valuable active roster space. That part should be manageable. However, I have two other concerns.

First, I have an incredible amount of respect for the Guardians’ front office and largely feel like ownership gets drug through the mud more than they should, but in this case, I am concerned that De Los Santos’s selection is a desperate attempt to add power on the cheap. I am concerned that with a new manager, a significant step backward in the win column in 2023 and a potential revenue catastrophe with the bankruptcy of Bally’s Sports this is the best that the Guardians are going to do to improve their power profile.

Secondly, the Guardians appear to be stockpiling first basemen. Kyle Manzardo was added at last year’s trade deadline. Now De Los Santos is in tow as well. It is becoming clear that any possibility of keeping Josh Naylor for the mid-to-longer term is increasingly unlikely, otherwise, Cleveland wouldn’t be stashing replacements.

If I’m right on my first concern, then that’s flat-out not good enough. The Guardians aren’t doing enough to improve this team.

If I’m right on my second concern, then the Guardians are running out of seasons for not only one of their best hitters but the players that you might consider their soul these last few years.

So sure, at face value, adding De Los Santos seems low risk. But on the other hand, it feels like if this is the best the Guardians can do to add needed talent and even more replacements are going to be needed when someone like Naylor is jettisoned, then maybe adding Deyvison De Los Santos is more pivotal than meets the eye.

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