April 20, 2024

After four weeks of Cactus League play, the Cleveland Guardians finalized their 26-man Major League roster on Saturday. The roster announcement brought resolution to a number of position battles that needed to be settled over the course of Spring Training, including multiple starting outfield positions as well as starting shortstop and multiple openings in the team’s bullpen.

Complicating matters further, the team has suffered from pitching injuries over the course of the spring with reliever Trevor Stephan now out for the season as well as starting pitcher Gavin Williams and several relievers (Sam Hentges, James Karinchak, Ben Lively) expected to start miss the start of the season due to injury or illness.

Regardless of the degradation of options in the bullpen, the team appears prepared to depart for Oakland with a full roster. Zack Meisel of The Athletic had this rudimentary but effective breakdown of the roster on Twitter.

Starting with the pitchers, here is some notable information to pull out of how the Guardians will break camp:

  • We’ve known four members of the starting rotation since the team reported to Goodyear in February: Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen. The fifth pitcher would be Williams, but he won’t be ready for Opening Day.
  • On Sunday, the team announced that Carlos Carrasco would be the fifth starter, winning the job instead of fellow potential swing-man Tyler Beede. Carrasco, returning to the Guardians after three seasons with the New York Mets, was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. He pitched to a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings this spring, earning the job and possibly returning to form after a poor 2023 season in the Big Apple.
  • Admittedly, Beede has not been on my radar for much of this spring, and if not for all the injury and illness, he probably doesn’t make the team. Beede is a 30-year-old right-handed journeyman who spent 2023 in Japan. He last pitched in MLB in 2022 for the Pittsburgh Pirates largely as a reliever but did have a few starts never stretching longer than four innings. He has had an excellent spring though, throwing 10 2/3 innings with a 1.69 ERA. He will likely provide length out of the Guardians bullpen to start the season.
  • Beede will join a bullpen that was supposed to have competition to determine two spots for the Opening Day roster. There were six main names in competition: Karinchak (hurt), Carrasco (starting now), Xzavion Curry (sick), Tim Herrin (still standing), Ben Lively (sick), and Cade Smith (still standing) with Hunter Gaddis¬† (still standing) entering the competition too after a really strong spring showing. At least for the moment, resolving the final two bullpen spots (which became the final four bullpen spots with Stephan and Hentges not able to pitch) became really easy. Anyone that is still standing is going to be on the Opening Day roster. The only exception may be that if the Guardians find someone on the waiver wire that they like from other teams’ roster cuts, they may grab him rather than rush Cade Smith (having never pitched in AAA) to the Majors.
  • At the same time, this season is a lot longer than the last few days of March in Oakland. As the team hopefully returns to health, the Guardians will still need to make decisions on who to roster, and if pitchers like Beede, Herrin and Smith can perform well, perhaps those will be tough choices to make.
  • Pecking order for who I think is most likely to be first demoted, starting with the most likely: Beede, Herrin (will be on the team as long as Hentges is not on the roster since they are both lefties), Smith, Gaddis, Carrasco (likely moves to a bullpen role after Williams returns).

Moving to position players, here’s an idea of what the Guardians’ depth chart might look like.

  • Much like the rotation, there was some stuff we were sure of going into the spring. Both Naylors, Andres Gimenez, Jose Ramirez and Steven Kwan‘s spots were all solidified as regular everyday starters.
  • Interestingly, all three potential options for the starting shortstop job have made the team in Brayan Rocchio, Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman. This is a bit of a surprise, considering that, well… there’s only one shortstop position on the field.
    • Rocchio is not nearly as versatile as Arias or Freeman, so it stands to reason that if he made the team, it is because he is going to play shortstop a lot. It does not make much sense to roster a guy on the bench who only plays one position effectively.
    • Arias has played pretty much every other infield position except second base and has played a little bit of right field too. His versatility allowed him to stick on the roster despite apparently losing the shortstop job to Rocchio. Neither one hit especially well this spring, but Rocchio was slightly better with a .767 OPS and 4 doubles in 39 plate appearances.
    • The spring’s biggest experiment was the Guardians sending Tyler Freeman to the outfield. The move has generally been a success with Freeman slashing .286/.355/.429 and playing a perfectly adequate center field. The team seems encouraged to keep him out there as the games begin to count. He may even end up being the team’s Opening Day center-fielder. But again, versatility with Freeman taking to the outfield but also being able to play all around the infield, was a key factor.
  • Freeman was able to locate an opportunity because the team’s other more traditional option competing for an everyday center-field role didn’t really seize the opportunity.
    • The Guardians traded pitcher Cody Morris (who would look really good on this roster right now, considering the injuries) for Estevan Florial this winter. Florial was never really given a fair shake with the New York Yankees over the last few seasons, having just 134 plate appearances over four years, but did very little to seize the opportunity this spring, hitting .150 with just one extra-base hit and striking out in 44% of his plate appearances. Spring Training stats are far from being great indicators of future success, but Florial results have him looking over-matched to the extreme. In reality, I believe he has made this team because he is out of minor league options and because the Guardians are not ready to go empty-handed for trading Morris.
    • In right field, the team will potentially have a platoon situation between Will Brennan and Ramon Laureano.
      • Laureano, a right-handed hitter, has an OPS of .791 over the course of the last three seasons when facing left-handed pitchers. His OPS against righties is just .658 over the same period of time. He makes great sense as the small side of a platoon.
      • For the larger side of the platoon, Will Brennan may have earned his second opportunity at the Major League level. I thought he was on the outside looking in coming into this spring, but he hit well early in the spring, having hit two home runs and slugging .486 in 40 plate appearances. He’s played well enough to make the team and at minimum, share playing time with Laureano.
  • Even so, Will Brennan’s inclusion on this roster is only possible due to a surprise exclusion: outfielder Myles Straw. Straw was traded to the Guards mid-season in 2021 and hit .285 with a very solid 105 OPS+ in 60 games in Cleveland that season. The strong start earned him a 5-year contract extension worth $25 million. He followed up by winning a Gold Glove in center-field in 2022, but his offensive production has unfortunately plummeted over the last two seasons, hitting a paltry .229 and slugging just .284 for an OPS+ of just 67 in 299 games over those two campaigns. Straw had actually hit .345 with 3 doubles over the course of the spring for a .448 slugging percentage. He added 10 pounds of muscle in the off-season as well, but the team was not convinced that the appropriate thump had been added to his bat and has decided to go in another direction. Despite his contract, the team waived Straw on Friday- an attempt to get out from under his contract by hoping another team claims him. If he is not claimed, the Guardians will owe him his salary and they can choose to either demote or release him.
  • While many fans desired for Straw to be removed from the roster, his removal still comes as a surprise. It was assumed that Brennan, being cost-controlled and having minor league options left, would be the odd man out and on his way to Columbus. However, Brennan has made the team, probably due to having more potential to drive the baseball, something the Guardians desperately need, especially from their outfield.
  • While Kwan is solidified in left field and I have listed Freeman as the starter in center, it’s worth mentioning that some position jockeying should be expected, especially early in the season. Florial will need to get at-bats so that the team can evaluate if he is a long-term option. Freeman could have some duties spelling other players on the infield. Arias could be put into the mix in right field, as he has been in the past, in order to get him at-bats. Laureano doesn’t have to be a strict platoon option and Brennan could play center in a pinch. And then there’s the DH situation.
  • That spot could have been for Deyvison De Los Santos, but he is the other higher-profile candidate to not make the 26-man squad. De Los Santos had been a Rule five Draft pick this winter and as such, since he is not on the 26-man roster, he is being returned to his former team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. De Los Santos is a 20-year-old young man that has never played above AA ball. In retrospect, his ability to make the Guardians roster now appears like it was a long shot- like a lottery ticket for a team hoping to stumble into some power potential. De Los Santos hit 20 home runs in 113 AA games last year but hit only one and didn’t put up a single walk in 41 spring training plate appearances. De Los Santos may be a great hitter someday, but he just doesn’t seem ready for prime time yet. The team seems to have opted for Florial over De Los Santos, much like they opted for Brennan over Straw.
  • And with De Los Santos staying in Arizona and Kyle Manzardo starting the season in the minors, the Guardians don’t have a simple answer to the designated hitter role. Instead, it seems that they will parlay their roster flexibility and versatility into an ability to rotate the DH role among many options. Arias is possibly a good candidate to get many opportunities to DH, as could Brennan. Personally, I would like to see David Fry get the opportunity to get his bat in the lineup more via being the DH. He showed legitimate pop last season and on a team that could use that potential, it seems like a waste to not utilize him more than as a third catcher and occasionally used utility man.
  • If I had to venture a guess at what a common early-season batting order may look like for the Guardians, my guess is it would look something like this. This is what I think they will do, as opposed to what I would do. Also, this isn’t necessarily for Opening Day, but just a common, regular every everyday lineup.

  • The first four are solid. I actually think the best version of the Guards is vs. lefties when Laureano can play in right and hit fifth, shifting everyone else down a spot. It is yet to be seen if manager Steven Vogt is a manager who will put his best hitter in the 2-spot, but I think there could be a chance for that to be where Hosey lands. In this example, Brennan could have just as well been the DH with Florial in right, or Fry could have taken the spot, or someone could have gotten off the field for the day. I personally don’t love the idea of going from a Gold Glove-caliber CF to a guy who’s been playing the position for five weeks, but the Guardians seem comfortable with Freeman in the center. I think we are going to see that a lot.

It is important to remember, that early rosters aren’t set in stone for the long term. I’ve written this multiple times in this space already, but this 2024 season really does seem like one of transition for the Guardians. As the season progresses, we will find out if Freeman is really an option in the center and if his bat will make the experiment worth it in the first place. The Guardians will find out if they have two shortstops, one shortstop or no shortstop at all on the MLB roster. Bo Naylor will get a full season to be a catcher in the show with some of the best mentors he could possibly have. Manzardo will come up and get the chance to show if he could be a legitimate addition to this lineup. Everyone’s favorite prospect, Chase DeLauter, may be here sooner than you think to solve the right-field question. He’ll at least get the opportunity.

Make no mistake, this Guardians team is going to try to win ballgames. They always do. But along with the transition, 2024 is a season of opportunity.

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