April 20, 2024

Diving into the Guardians Four Biggest Position Battles of the Spring

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Cactus League play started on Saturday, and with that, the Guardians have embarked on four and a half weeks of pre-season that will help determine their roster. While many familiar faces are back and certain positions are likely set in stone (barring injury), Cleveland does have a number of roles that are to be decided while the team prepares itself in Arizona.

Four major areas of the ball club have battles that need to be decided at this point. Those areas relate to the outfield, shortstop, a combination of first base and designated hitter, and the early innings of the bullpen. Here is a look at each of these situations, and the players both new and old that are competing for a prominent role.

Outfield

The Players: Steven Kwan, Ramon Laureano, Myles Straw, Will Brennan, Estevan Florial

In many ways, the Guardians’ much-maligned outfield is an open competition this spring. Coming off a year where the team’s outfielders collectively hit 18 home runs, slugged just .342 and had a wRC+ of 84, it would be an understatement to say this group could use significant improvement offensively. The coaching staff so far this spring is speaking ad nauseam about swinging with more aggression and more intention to do damage when ahead in the count, no unit on the team could use that change in mindset more.

As for the players individually, I have five listed for a likely four spots on the roster, and roster rules will likely play a major factor in who makes the team.

First, Kwan seems like the only incumbent whose job is safe from being reconsidered. It would be a surprise to not see him leading off and in left field on Opening Day.

Beyond that, Straw has a Major League contract and is making $4.5 million. Chances are slim to none he is going to be cashing those checks in Columbus. Similarly, Laureano will be making more than $5 million in 2024 and the Guardians actively signed him to a contract this winter. They would not have done that without the intention of him being on the 26-man.

Florial was acquired via trade this winter from the Yankees. Again, the team actively pursued him and did so despite the fact he was out of minor-league options. They went into his acquisition wide-eyed about the fact that he would have to be on the 26-man roster or pass through waivers. They aren’t going to let a guy go through waivers who they just traded for.

This leaves Brennan as the odd man out, and I suspect that’s exactly how this will play out. Of course, if injuries occur Brennan could be the next man up. Additionally, Florial only has 61 MLB at-bats under his belt. He did smoke 28 home runs in AAA in 101 games last season, but I suppose if he looks totally lost against Major League pitching and Brennan really stands out, then possibly that would be enough for the team to ditch Florial in favor of Brennan. All those factors coming together doesn’t seem likely.

Center-field has been patrolled by Straw the last few seasons, and he remains one of the best fielding center-fielders in the league, but without much authority in his stick, it’s no guarantee he will play every day in 2024. Laureano and Brennan have historically played some center, but the newbie in Florial is likely Straw’s biggest competition. If it appears that Florial’s pop can translate to the big leagues, then Straw’s job may be in jeopardy. Whether Florial plays every day will come down to if he hits well enough to negate the fact that the Guardians would be benching a Gold Glove winner. I personally don’t think that Straw being replaced is as much of a foregone conclusion as many fans do. If I’m forced to pick, I’d say Straw is still the team’s center-fielder in April, if not perhaps much longer, even with Florial likely on the roster.

As for right-field, I suspect Laureano will play there at least some of the time. Historically, he is a more than adequate hitter against left-handed pitching. At a minimum, he probably plays as the small end of a platoon in right field. If Florial impresses this spring, he could cut into Laureano’s ABs against righties.

With all these intricacies in mind, I think the most likely outcome is that Straw and Laureano are “most days” starters (as opposed to “everyday starters”) in center and right, respectively. Florial will get a lot of at-bats spelling both, especially against right-handed pitching.

I would have loved to suggest or mix in other interesting guys from down on the farm like George Valera or Jhonkensy Noel in this conversation, but while there are big question marks with this outfield, there also isn’t that much flexibility just because everyone’s contract situations. Valera, who has been a top prospect for years, but is also injury-prone, is also already dealing with more injury issues this spring. Expect those guys to get seasoning at AAA.

Shortstop

The Players: Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio, Tyler Freeman

This is a three-way race that has been years in the making. All three of these guys have been touted as prospects while being stuck behind Amed Rosario over the last few seasons and finally have the opportunity to compete for the starting shortstop job for Opening Day.

Arias has gotten the longest look in the Majors so far as he has played in 138 games with more than 400 plate appearances. Of the three, he would be the most direct answer to the team’s power-hitting needs as he has more potential to hit the ball over the fence than Freeman or Rocchio do. He is also a very toolsy defender with good hands and a great arm but has lost concentration at times on the field and has been susceptible to making errors. He also struck out at a worse rate last season than any other Guardian not named Mike Zunino.

Rocchio is the even newer kid on the block. While Arias’s prospect pedigree floundered a little bit being stuck behind Rosario the last couple of seasons, Rocchio was matriculating through the minors and might be ascending now at the right time. He hit .280 with 33 doubles and 25 steals in 116 games at AAA Columbus and is sure-handed at short. But, in 23 MLB games, he hit just .247, never homered and made some silly base-running mistakes. He has reported to the club after playing winter ball in Venezuela where he hit .377 but with just one homer. He’s a talented young ballplayer but needs to show some more polish if he’s going to take the starting role at short.

Freeman is perceived as the least likely. I think this largely stems from the fact that to this point he hasn’t really been considered an everyday Major League shortstop. He was steered more to playing games at second or third base last season to spell Andres Gimenez and Jose Ramirez while the team favored playing Arias and Rocchio at short after Rosario was traded. It is yet to be seen if this was a decision put in place by Terry Francona or if this perception of Freeman is prevalent throughout the organization as well as with their new manager. In my opinion, Freeman has been the steadiest of the three while playing in the big leagues. He’s struck out at nearly half the rate of Arias while not making the same fielding gaffs as Arias or base-running gaffs as Rocchio. Freeman would be a step toward the status quo though. I think he projects as a very similar everyday player as Rosario. He’d hit a lot of singles, hit for a good average but only hit about 10 homers a year. He’s not the flashy defender that Arias or Rocchio could be, but Freeman isn’t nearly as bad as Rosario was in the field either.

Anyway, I still don’t think the team perceives Freeman as an everyday shortstop. He probably makes the team, but likely as the extra middle-infielder. Which means I think this is genuinely an open-ended competition between Arias and Rocchio and it could go either way. I will side with Arias just because he covers the team’s main deficiency better than Rocchio does and the team may want to give him one more chance to prove himself before moving on. I think the team opens up with Arias at short for the big league club and Rocchio getting reps in Columbus.

First base/Designated Hitter

The Players: Josh Naylor, Deyvison De Los Santos, Kyle Manzardo, David Fry

In no way am I suggesting Josh Naylor will not be an everyday player. In fact, it’s a no-brainer that if the Guardians are going to be successful in 2024, that is wholly dependent on a healthy and productive Josh Naylor at the plate and in the field.

However, one of the biggest ways Cleveland’s clear lack of hitting manifested itself last season was via the DH position. The team was dead last in both Base Percentage and wRC+ at the DH position in 2023. They simply didn’t have any good extra hitters to plug into the spot on a day-to-day basis.

One of the aforementioned outfielders that are in competition with one another could help assume a DH role, but the team also has some other first baseman-types, including two new-comers, that could help with the Guardians’ offensive deficiencies at the position as well as at large.

De Los Santos was the team’s Rule 5 Draft pick. In order to keep him, the Guardians may not take him off the 26-man roster all season. He is very much a power-first hitter. Being a pure rookie, he is potentially a very cheap option to add significant thump to the lineup but is only 20 years old and has never played above AA ball. He did hit 20 home runs in 113 games in AA last year and specifically made some swing changes mid-season that saw him hit 12 of his homers in August and September. If he can supply what the Guardians need, he might not only make the team, but he could probably start a lot at DH (he isn’t much of a fielder and is a corner infielder by trade). If not, the team might just leave him in Arizona when they start the season, where he can return to his previous org in the Diamondbacks.

Manzardo was received last summer from Tampa Bay in exchange for Aaron Civale. He is essentially a top-40 or so prospect in all of baseball and the fact the team got him for their fourth starter could end up being a steal. Many perceive him as the most likely hitter currently in the Guardians minor league system to succeed. He certainly seemed to take to the change of scenery last season as he hit .256 with 6 homers in 21 games (43-homer pace for 150 games) for Columbus after the trade while hitting just .238 with 11 homers in 73 games (23-homer pace for 150 games) for AAA Durham, although injuries could have played a role in his worse rate statistics in Durham. Unlike De Los Santos though, there is no pressure to immediately put Manzardo in the Majors. In fact, his service time clock hasn’t started yet and he isn’t even on the 40-man roster right now. The team would need to find a spot for him.

In the event that De Los Santos really doesn’t look ready for prime time, then the 1B/DH role could certainly go to Manzardo. But if Manzardo also looks like he should see some more AAA pitching before being promoted, then the backup plan to the backup plan is likely David Fry. Fry performed valiantly last season in a super-utility role. He played catcher, first base, right-field, left-field, DH, third base and even pitched a couple of times. Maybe just as importantly, only the Naylor brothers and Jose Ramirez hit for better Isolated Power than Fry among Guardians with at least 100 plate appearances. His potential to hit the ball with some authority along with his ability to play all over the field probably earn him a spot on the roster by themselves, but it could be a very prominent spot if De Los Santos is a dud and Manzardo just doesn’t look ready yet.

In all cases, I would expect Naylor to get the majority of the work at first base, but there will be a need to spell him in the field and move him to DH. I would expect that how much time Naylor plays first vs. getting to be the designated hitter will be on a sliding scale based on who he is sharing duties with. De Los Santos is a bit of a butcher, so he’d probably be used in the field sparingly. Fry is just passable at first, so he would get a moderate amount of looks without embarrassing himself. Manzardo is fairly athletic and would probably be most likely to get close to splitting time 50-50 with Naylor at 1B.

If Brennan hits .450 this spring, forget everything I said. He’s probably making the team and DHing. Save for that situation, my prediction is that De Los Santos doesn’t have enough sizzle to make the Guardians keep him on the roster (I say this despite really wanting to see him succeed, this was a really intriguing move by the organization). He would be returned to Arizona and his spot on the roster would make room for Manzardo. Fry makes the team as a utility man.

Relief Pitcher

The Players: James Karinchak, Xzavion Curry, Ben Lively, Carlos Carrasco, Tim Herrin, Cade Smith

So, six relief pitchers are probably locks (Clase, Barlow, Hentges, Stephan, Morgan and Sandlin), leaving two spots for these additional six candidates.

Curry feels like the closest to a sure thing. He pitched admirably in his rookie year last year, pitching to a 4.07 ERA and soaking up 95 innings in a variety of roles. He, along with Carrasco and Lively are potential swing-men that could pitch in a traditional bullpen role as well as long-relief and will also probably get stretched out to start in case of injury. I’ve already written at length about Carrasco’s return. He feels like an insurance policy in case of other pitching injuries, even though he could potentially contribute. Lively signed to a Major League deal with the team, albeit for just $750,000. If he is lights-out this spring, he will definitely make the team, but I am genuinely curious what they will do if the rotation stays healthy and Curry and Lively don’t separate themselves from one another. Lively is 31 and on a one-year deal. Curry is 25 and cost-controlled. I imagine Curry would get the nod since he is more likely to be part of the team’s long-term plans.

For the other spot, Karinchak and Herrin both have a history of pitching for the Guardians, but in different roles. Herrin would fill a spot as a second left-handed reliever to go along with Sam Hentges. It has been quite rare in recent years for the team to carry two lefties in the bullpen, but perhaps that would change under Stephen Vogt. Herrin pitched to an uninspiring 5.53 ERA in 27 2/3 Major League innings last season but his FIP was just 3.87, suggesting he was having some poor luck. Karinchak has been an enigma as a Major League pitcher. He has been marvelous at times but between the enforcement of foreign substances rules and the pitch clock, he just seems like a mess of distractions. He really needs to prove himself this spring. If he can be cool, calm and collected on the mound and pitch adequately, this is hit spot to lose. But those are massive ifs.

If not, and if the Guardians don’t want to go with another lefty, Cade Smith is a really interesting option. He’s a right-handed reliever that tops off at 96 mph with his fastball to go along with a good slider. Smith would be a pure rookie, but did pitch for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic last year where he struck out Mets start first baseman Pete Alonso. He had an excellent 2.86 ERA at AA Akron last year but did scuffle a little more in 40 2/3 innings at Columbus with a 4.65 ERA. To his credit, he did strike out 95 batters in 62 2/3 innings between the two levels last season. He’s got the stuff. He just needs the consistency.

I suspect that Karinchak will get the job, but I also suspect we will see both Herrin and Smith at some point during the season. It sure would go a long way to be able to add a stable Karinchak into the bullpen with his head on straight and both of his pitches working effectively. If not, Smith has the opportunity to be an electric arm that could be successful if put into the right situations.

 

Conclusion

Since Spring Training has begun, the Guardians organization has expressed how important it is that they take the opportunity this year to see what they have in so many of their young players. I agree with this sentiment. This spring needs to be a time of discovery. Can Arias stick as an everyday MLB player? Can De Los Santos hit well enough to help the offense despite his youth and swing-and-miss potential? Can a flier on someone like Florial bring some offensive spark to an outfield that has been downright lethargic at the plate at times for more than half a decade?

2024 has the potential to be a season of evolution for the Guardians, and that evolution begins now.

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