With a record of 68-76, and finding themselves 7.5 games behind the division leading Minnesota Twins, the Cleveland Guardians playoffs aspirations are all but dashed as baseball has entered its final weeks. As the Guards’ situation has become clear, you may expect that the team would look to play a bevy of new minor leaguers in an effort to learn more about what they have waiting in the wings. And while this may be an interesting idea in practice, it may ultimately not end up being the case.
For one, playing a ton of farmhands late in a lost season was a lot easier to do when rosters expanded to 40 players in September rather than the current 28. The Guardians are utilizing all 28 available roster spots right now, at least 14 of which must go to position players. If the team wants to add any new additional young talent to the field in these final weeks, it will require the demotion of someone else. Promoting a pitcher would require demoting a pitcher, and the same goes for position players.
Why No Wholesale Changes?
On the position players’ side of things, there are probably a couple names fans might have a desire to see demoted. Perhaps catcher Cam Gallagher or center-fielder Myles Straw come to mind. Maybe the team could also give up the roster spots of veteran stop gaps like Kole Calhoun and Ramon Laureano as well.
On the contrary, the Guardians seem committed to Gallagher (for the remainder of this year) and Straw (for the long run). Both have struggled mightily at the plate (slugging .185 in 130 ABs and .291 is 422 ABs, respectively) but Cleveland appears devoted to the fact that they are strong defensive players. In Gallagher’s case, he also has the opportunity to mentor two young rookie catchers on the roster. The Guardians front office is unlikely to give up on what they perceive as value in the clubhouse and defensively (to that end, I would expect another Gallagher-type catcher on the roster in 2024, whether it is specifically him or not and for Straw to be back as well).
In terms of Calhoun and Laureano, there are other reasons why the Guardians may remain latched on. In Laureano’s case, he checks boxes that the Guardians like as an outfielder- he is strong in the field with a great arm and the ability to play all three positions. On top of that, he does provide a little bit more power than a lot of the Guardians’ other outfield selections. Simply put, he’s versatile and competent in the field while also having pop at the plate. Most importantly, he is still under team control, meaning that he is not eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season. The Guardians will have to go through the arbitration process with him, but they do have Laureano under contract for two more seasons. Given his potential talents, he could be part of the roster moving forward.
For Calhoun’s situation, he has proven in a short time period how serviceable he can be as a Major Leaguer, but is also 35 years of age and will be a free agent in the winter. At the same time, he has been a great clubhouse presence in these late days of a lost year where team chemistry could have really spiraled. The Guardians remain the youngest team in baseball in 2023. They could use some vets. It would not surprise me to see Calhoun offered a minor league deal and an invitation to Spring Training over the winter. He obviously doesn’t need to remain on the 28-man roster in order to land on this outcome, but the Guardians might not want to rock the boat and cause a rift in the relationship between organization and player. Calhoun hits 10 years of service time in the Majors on Thursday. At that point, he becomes eligible for a pension. I suspect the Guardians keep him around at least through Thursday, but he is the most likely candidate to be pushed off the roster if they want to give someone else a chance.
One other option would be to demote current youngster infielder Jose Tena. While currently on the 28-man roster, his starting and playing time do not seem to have been prioritized by manager Terry Francona (just 2 starts in 7 appearances). He has mostly seen time pinch hitting, pinch running or as a defensive replacement. My perception is that he is the 28th man on the roster right now, and since he has minor league options available, his spot could be expendable if the team wants a look at someone else.
On the pitching side, the Guardians have already emptied the tank of most of their top tier young starters with all of Gavin Williams, Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen and Xzavion Curry spending most of the season in the Majors. Additionally, the Guardians have stated they fully intend to have Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie return before the season is over. Again, in order to do so, someone will have to be bumped off the 28-man roster. Out of an abundance of caution, the Guardians’ young starters are being restricted in how many pitches and innings than can throw this year. Due to this, there is some chance that they could be optioned off the roster, but the greater point stands that if Bieber and McKenzie are going to be re-activated, they would have to take two spots that are currently occupied.
To be fair, even if two spots do get swapped out for Bieber and McKenzie, that does leave one current rotation spot that is currently being used by the trio of Williams, Bibee and Allen (Curry is currently back in the bullpen). Additionally, Lucas Giolito has not been impressive whatsoever in his two starts since Cleveland claimed him (11.70 ERA in 10 innings). He is a free agent in the off-season and the Guardians may not be all that interested in keeping him if they want to consider other more long-term options.
In terms of the bullpen, the Guardians already added outside reinforcements in Matt Moore and Reynaldo Lopez. While the team has had struggles with some of its longer running options like Sam Hentges (4.00 ERA) and even closer Emmanuel Clase (10 blown saves), I think the front office is committed to the talent they have as it has largely shown a previous track record of success and has had some bad luck in 2023.
Who Are Some Potential Candidates With the Spots that Are Available?
So with all that said, it appears the Guardians could have two position player spots that they could play with as well as possibly two pitchers spots. Who could potentially fill these roles?
There are a number of position players the Guardians could promote, most of which are currently on the 40-man roster. The most obvious move could be to re-promote infielder Brayan Rocchio who has already seen time in the Majors this year, mostly at shortstop. However, if the Guardians are trying to get a good long look at Gabriel Arias at short, they may prefer to leave Rocchio at AAA.
Two other options would be a pair of outfielders. George Valera is a left-handed hitting outfielder who was ranked as the #51 prospect in all of baseball by MLB before the season. Valera has only hit .212 in 63 games at AAA Columbus but started the season injured and has been playing catch-up since. He has hit 9 home runs in 222 at bats and has played all three outfield positions. He is a highly thought of prospect and could see promotion just off of that reputation, even if this season has been a weak one.
The other option would be Jhonkensy Noel, an all-or-nothing type power threat who hits right-handed. Noel has hit 26 homers in 126 games at Columbus this year. The Guardians are absolutely devoid of power (dead last in baseball in homers), particularly in the outfield, which makes the proposition of Noel’s promotion either now or in the future very intriguing. He is far from a sure-fire thing though, considering he has struck out against AAA pitching 132 times while only walking 44 times. Perhaps Noel’s faults are all the more reason to get an early start on vetting his Major League capabilities. He has played both corner outfield positions, but also both corner infield positions. He is fairly slow of foot, so he is likely a 1B/LF at best in the Majors, though the Guardians also don’t exactly have shoe-in for the DH role either right now. Noel has had a solid 2023. A late year cup of coffee in the Majors might be a good move as a vote of confidence and to see if his power could really play in the Majors. Even just a small indication of his power potential showing up could make a difference in shaping future Guardians’ rosters.
Going off the board and for a non-40 man option for a moment, the Guardians could also promote infielder Daniel Schneemann. Schneemann has put together a nice season at Columbus hitting .272 with 13 homers and 29 doubles in 107 games. A strong season in the minors might get him consideration, but it would make more sense for the Guards to promote Rocchio considering the two players play similar roles and Rocchio’s promotion wouldn’t require designating someone for assignment the way it would take to get Schneemann on the 40-man.
And for a last option, the Guardians could also promote first baseman Kyle Manzardo who they received at the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Aaron Civale. Manzardo, a left-handed hitter with good contact skills, is a highly thought of prospect. Baseball America ranked him as the #60 prospect in all of baseball before the season. However, Manzardo was on the Injured List when the Guardians acquired him and has only played three games since joining the organization. He also is not currently on the 40-man roster. Due to these factors, his promotion to the Majors is less likely.
As for pitchers, as previously stated, most of the Guardians’ top talent has already been promoted in 2023. There is one top prospect in starter Joey Cantillo that would make an appearance if the front office feels the need, but Cantillo has probably already been a little rushed to AAA Columbus as he needed to back-fill one of the spots left open by Williams, Bibee and Allen. He has pitched to an alright ERA of 4.55 in 85 innings. I think the fact he has gotten so much experience at the AAA might just be enough adventure for him in 2023.
Another potential option could be the return of Zach Plesac, but the fact that the Guardians have tried both Noah Syndergaard and Giolito rather than another round of Plesac likely speaks to what they currently think of Plesac. Hunter Gaddis could get another look as well, but he has not impressed in the Majors (4.85 ERA) or minors (an even worse 6.25 ERA at AAA). I’m not sure he has earned it. A last returning option would be Cody Morris, who the organization has been working with to get stretched out as a starter in the minors after spending the early part of the year in a bullpen role. He also struggled in 6 relief appearances (6.75 ERA) earlier this year. I think he might be an option for a spot start toward the end of the year, but not much more.
All of Cantillo, Plesac, Gaddis and Morris appear on the current 40-man roster, so getting them promoted would not require releasing anyone. If Bieber and McKenzie do indeed return to the rotation before the season ends, they could take two of the three spots in the rotation currently possessed by Williams, Bibee and Allen, leaving one additional spot for replacement. Perhaps Morris could take this role. Or perhaps the organization would be fine with one of the three young talents pitching to the end of the year. For the record, Williams has the fewest innings to this point at 130 pitched and therefore could be the most likely candidate. Things also get interesting if Bieber and/or McKenzie have setbacks, as that would lead to more need to manage who pitches the remaining innings of the year and possibly opens the window for someone like Cantillo or Gaddis to make Major League appearances.
The Guardians are almost certainly not headed to the playoffs in 2023, a season that now looks like a setback from 2022’s success. However, the team remains the youngest in baseball, and as such, still has a lot to learn about the myriad of young talent throughout their roster. Whether or not they make any changes to the 28 men currently in their clubhouse, there is plenty to be learned yet this season, but there are many options if they decide to make a change.
Even if not playoff bound, 2023’s remaining games can indeed have future implications. There is opportunity still available to end the season on a positive note as a team and for both possible new additions and current Guardians to make a final impression before 2024.