Is Amed Rosario the Long-Term Answer At Short?

Amed Rosario’s five for five night on Tuesday was the perfect cap on what was a month of stellar play for the 25-year-old shortstop. Rosario not only successfully hit himself on base all five times during the Indians’ 7-2 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium, but hit two home runs in the contest including an inside-the-park shot that exemplified not only his hot bat, but blazing speed and skill on the base-paths.

The big night comes at the end of a banner month for Rosario that saw him lead the Major Leagues in batting average (.372). Rosario completed his slash line with a .397 on base percentage (good for 5th in the American League) as well as a slugging percentage of .584. Perhaps, most notably, Rosario was the 3rd most valuable player in the American League by wins above replacement (1.5), only being beat out by New York’s Aaron Judge and teammate Jose Ramirez (both at 1.6).

With Rosario being paired with Ramirez on the right side of the infield, as well as in the two and three spots in the batting order, the Indians found themselves with a deadly combination in august that helped them reach the .500 mark for the month. At face value, .500 may not seem like an impressive plateau to reach, but context matters. This Indians team sold talent at the trade deadline, a mere matter of days before the month began. They entered August knowing that they had lost their manager for the remainder of the season. On top of both of those items, they continue to be without two fifths of their regular starting rotation including last year’s Cy Young Award winner. Yet, the Indians didn’t let the wind out of their sails despite this adversity. They may not be beating the world right now, but they are playing strong, competitive baseball at a time where they could have easily packed it in.

Still, regardless of the current effort level or what the last month of the season may bring in terms of wins and losses, its clear that the Indians are not playoff-bound in 2021. At the same time, all indications are that as they metamorphosize into the Guardians for the 2022 season, the plan is to compete for the American League Central Division crown.

August has been the exclamation point for a sentence that has solidified itself over the course of this season. Amed Rosario is a significant piece for what a playoff-bound Guardians team looks like in 2022! There is still a remaining question, however. Should his role be as the Indians/Guardians shortstop for the near future or even longer? Or is his defensive position still a mystery.

Its been clear that the Indians have been seeking ways to keep Rosario’s bat in the lineup since spring training. An early season attempt to put Rosario in center-field originated from suspicions that the team had that seemingly have rung true. The premise that “we aren’t sure where exactly where its best to play him in the field, but we are pretty sure that if we give him consistent at bats he is going to hit” has been proven correct over the course of five months.

Rosario’s first spring training game in center is what everyone remembers. However, the statistics suggest that once games started counting there was nothing drastically wrong with his efforts in patrolling the outfield. Rosario was essentially a net neutral outcome in centerfield. Really, it was shortstop Andres Gimenez being demoted to AAA Columbus due to offensive struggles that inspired Rosario’s move back to the infield. The Indians needed to plug the hole at shortstop despite still not really having their center-field situation figured out. Rosario was the best pick to fit the need.

Since the date of Gimenez’s demotion (May 18th), Rosario has slashed .315/.350/.460. That includes the 7th-best batting average in all of baseball over the time period in question. Returning to the infield, where he had played exclusively for the Mets in his 3+ seasons with them likely provided some comfort for Rosario, but perhaps he has also developed right before our eyes. Rosario, at age 25, is having the first season of his career with a weighted runs created+ above 100. He is, by definition, an above average hitter for the first time in his career, coming into what should be his approaching prime and he is now poised to have his best seasons with the Guardians.

Quite possibly, he will be having them as the shortstop. Gimenez returned to the big league club on August 7th after a good showing in Columbus, but still hasn’t entirely put it together at the highest level. A horrific slugging percentage of .250 is the best example of Gimenez’s struggles. he simply isn’t driving the ball in any meaningful way. Additionally, it seems that Yu Chang’s ambitions to be an everyday starter for this team ended with Bobby Bradley’s ascension as the everyday first baseman. Chang is a shortstop by trade who has played all over the infield this year but when his platoon at first with Jake Bauers came to an end, so did his steady stream of at bats. Chang actually hit incredibly well in August with a slash-line of .323/.364/.871 with four home runs, but he did that in a mere 33 at-bats despite the fact Bradley spent a good portion of the month on the injured list. Chang seems to always put up good spring training numbers that keep him in the conversation for the lineup or roster every march, but at some point this act will grow old and the team may need to look another direction. I don’t think anything he could do in march would usurp Rosario as the everyday shortstop. Last in terms of current major league options is Owen Miller, who is likely not a realistic option as he has made a mere five starts at either Columbus or in the big leagues at shortstop for the Indians this year. They likely figure him to be more of a second or first baseman given the time he has seen in both roles this season.

Rosario’s real challenger may come from the farm as Gabriel Arias has had a strong season in Columbus. Arias is putting together the best on base percentage of his young career in 2021 at AAA. This goes well in tandem with a career low strikeout rate. Contact has been considered Arias’ weakness, so the fact he is striking out at a lower rate than ever while playing at the highest level he has ever played at is a good sign for the future. He is an impressive prospect derived from the Mike Clevinger trade that sports scouting rankings that suggest he can both hit for power and play well above average defense at short. With 400 plate appearances under his belt in Columbus, he could certainly draw interest for the big league club in 2022.

For the moment, all accounts point to the idea that Rosario is the man to unseat at shortstop in 2022, but if Arias has a spring that suggests he is ready to contribute, that is going to be hard to turn down. Arias would be suspected to be the better fielder and therefore the more natural choice to play shortstop day to day. Even if Arias remains in the minors to start the season, he is likely to be waiting in the wings at some point to contribute in the majors sooner rather than later and this all means that Rosario might be moved out of his spot at short.

Even in the event that Arias impresses and lands in the lineup at some point in 2022, that doesn’t mean Rosario is done for. He has already shown his ability to adapt in the field in 2021 and while another trip to the outfield appears unlikely considering how the Indians personnel there has upgraded over the course of the summer, other questions abound regarding the correct solutions at first and second base. Second base in particular is a competition between the cast of characters that Rosario is seemingly head and shoulders above right now (Gimenez, Chang, Miller) and it would likely take a severe failing on Rosario’s part to change that.

The Indians were right about Rosario from the start of the spring. He is a worthy offensive player that needs to find a position. For the moment that position is shortstop, but even if that isn’t his long-term landing spot, he’s cemented himself as part of the Indians offense riding in 2022 and hopefully beyond.

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