April 23, 2024

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not: Way Too Early Spring Training Edition

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Believe it or not, it’s been more than two weeks since pitchers and catchers have reported. Not only have spring games begun, but with Sunday’s loss vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Guardians have already hit the double-digit mark in games played in the Cactus League this year.

At some point, after all the fashionable, early landmarks of Spring Training pass it can begin to feel like a bit of a slog. This doesn’t have to be the case. While these games don’t count in the season standings, they do count for the players who are either rounding into shape or trying to prove their worth to their organization.

Today, as we approach the 1/3 mark of Spring Training, I would like to take a look at five Guardians who have either made the most of their spring opportunity thus far and have impressed or those that have struggled out of the gate in exhibition competition.

This is Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.

Hot: C Miebrys Viloria

Viloria signed a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training with the Guardians at the beginning of December. While not on the immediate 40-man roster, he did present as a potential candidate to take the backup catcher role left vacated by Luke Maile’s departure in free agency. He has gotten the longest look of the catchers vying for the role this spring, probably in part because he plans to participate in the World Baseball Classic for his native Colombia. It is important he plays now because starting later this week, he will not be with the team for as long as fifteen days or so (if Colombia makes a deep run).

Despite this drawback, Viloria has made a decent case for himself offensively. It’s an incredibly small sample, but his OPS is better than any other catcher on the roster. He has five hits in eight at-bats including two doubles and has walked twice without striking out in any of his 10 plate appearances. His hits include a double off of Cubs free agency signing Jameson Taillon and a single off of solid major league reliever Jake Cousins, so he isn’t just feasting on poor minor league pitching.

No other option has taken the reigns of the backup catcher role, so it will be interesting to see how Viloria’s participation in the WBC affects the calculus. He won’t be around to continue to learn the pitching staff for at least part of mid-March. It is important to remember that being in sync with pitchers in terms of calling pitches could be more important than ever due to the pitch clock. Whether Cam Gallagher or Bryan Lavastida will impress in Viloria’s absence is yet to be seen.

Not: OF Jhonkensy Noel

Noel is a polarizing Guardians outfield prospect that spent most of 2022 between High A Lake County and AA Akron. His biggest quality is his penchant for the long ball, hitting 32 home runs in 548 plate appearances in 2022 between the two levels plus a small cup of coffee at AAA Columbus. However, Noel also hit only .229 and struck out a total of 150 times at all levels. That kind of swing-and-miss potential in the minors is what can give some prognosticators (including myself) pause.

Noel hasn’t done much to put concerns to rest so far this spring. He is 0 for 11 with just one walk and four strikeouts. At his worst, he struck out twice on February 28th vs. the Mariners. His one walk came in the first game of the spring, he has not reached base since. Not exactly inspiring.

Despite being on the 40-man, Noel isn’t expected to make the team given outfield prospects ahead of him like Will Brennan, Richie Palacios and George Valera. However, he should be given a long opportunity at AAA to prove himself in 2023.

Hot: 1B/OF Micah Pries

Pries is intriguing as he isn’t someone with a prospect pedigree, but he has been given an opportunity to join Major League camp and show his stuff. He spent 2022 at AA Akron and slashed .266/.341/.473 with 29 doubles in 504 plate appearances. He has above-average power and speed, but much like Noel, scouts and analysts aren’t sure he has the contact skills to play at higher levels.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3kpeRf43oA

Noel hasn’t done anything to dispute these assertions, but so far Pries has put up a great argument for himself. He is 5 for 15 so far this spring with two doubles and 2 home runs. He has struck out three times, which isn’t characteristically high or low within the confines of 15 at-bats. One of his homers came off of Oakland reliever Austin Pruitt who has seen quality time in the Majors as well. So again, there is a spark there to suggest Pries could fair well against quality pitching.

Pries has seen a lot of time in the outfield this spring, which is interesting because his future both at AAA and for an outside shot as a future Major Leaguer is probably at first base. I don’t expect a good spring showing to mean he suddenly ends up on the Opening Day roster, but he could allow the organization to confidently entrench him as the first baseman in Columbus for 2023.

Not: RP Dusten Knight

Not a huge surprise here. Knight is a journeyman right-handed relief pitcher that the team signed to a minor league deal this winter and was invited to Spring Training. He has allowed four earned runs in his three appearances, all of which lasted one inning. Hitters are also batting .308 against him so far this spring.

The biggest fault in his spring resume was the three runs allowed against the White Sox on the 1st. He pitched the 7th inning in that ballgame, allowing two extra-base hits and a walk. Those plate appearances came against three batters with a total of 18 Major League at-bats between them, though the walk was allowed to White Sox prospect Colson Montgomery. On the flip side, his only two strikeouts on the spring also came in this outing.

The Guardians have a reputation for being able to revitalize journeyman relievers and turn them into suitable Major League talent. Knight doesn’t seem like he will be this year’s reclamation project at this point. Still, he was brought in to be AAA bullpen depth at worst and should be able to fill that role at minimum.

Hot: SP Shane Bieber

So, we all know who this guy is. The Guardians ace is back and seems to be just as dominant as ever. Bieber saw himself miss a large portion of the 2021 season with shoulder issues. 2022 saw him return but with a decreased velocity that he had to learn to account for in his strategy on the mound. While his velocity did not increase as the season progressed, he seemed to acclimate himself over time and return to form over the course of the year.

Bieber still isn’t striking batters out at an elevated clip in this early spring, but he is allowing even fewer base-runners. Bieber has struck out three batters in five innings while allowing only one walk and one base hit, which was an infield hit. He has yet to allow a single run.

Manager Terry Francona is already planning on Bieber being his Opening Day starter barring “weather or something else”. This would be his fourth season in a row toeing the rubber when the season opens up for the Guards. To see him hit the ground running to start the spring is just all the more encouraging. Be prepared to see the super-effective Bieber that we saw at the end of 2022 for the entirety of 2023.

 

So, as I write these out, I realize it’s still so incredibly early to be drawing conclusions and making statements on any ballplayer in Guardians camp. At the same time, first impressions do matter and show how players have approached their preparation for the new season to come.

In some cases, we have seen players play to their characteristics, sometimes in good ways like Bieber, and sometimes in bad ways like Knight. In other instances, we have seen Viloria stake a claim to make the Major League roster and Pries prove that he could plausibly hit at the next level.

As Cactus League play continues, there will be more to come. We will find out if any of these trends (positive or negative) will stand the test of this spring, let alone the regular season.

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