The Upcoming Roster Crunch in Cleveland
The front office leaders of the newly-named Cleveland Guardians will be facing some tough decisions this winter. They have several top prospects who are Rule 5-eligible in December, so they will need to be added to the 40-man roster to protect them from being exposed. In particular, they have too many young infielders, and not enough spots for them.
There’s a strong possibility that two — and as many as four — of those infielders will be traded. But which ones?
First, let’s take a look at the situation:
Prospects valued over $1.5M who need to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, with expected 2022 level:
- 2B Tyler Freeman, AAA
- SS Brayan Rocchio, AAA
- OF George Valera, AAA
- C Bryan Lavastida, AAA
- 2B Aaron Bracho, AA
- LHP Joey Cantillo, AA
- SS Jose Tena, AA
- 2B Richie Palacios, MLB
- If we look ahead, the same problem may reoccur next year.
Prospects valued over $1.5M who need to be added to the 40 in the 2022/23 offseason, with expected 2022 level:
- C Bo Naylor, AAA
- 2B/SS Angel Martinez, A+
- SS Gabriel Rodriguez, A+
- RHP Ethan Hankins, A+
- SP Peyton Battenfield, AAA
- 1B Junior Sanquintin, A
- RHP Nick Mikolajchak, AAA
- RHP Lenny Torres, A+
That’s a total of 16 prospects who would need to be added this offseason and next. Quite a tall order.
If that’s not problematic enough, keep in mind that you might also want to leave room for good performers who are not imminently Rule 5-eligible, but who you might want to promote to help the MLB team.
One example is LHP Logan T. Allen (not to be confused with organization-mate Logan S. Allen), a 2020 2nd-round draft pick who has looked very impressive across two levels (A+ and AA), who figures to see action at the AAA level in 2022 and, if he does well there, could get an MLB callup as soon as next year.
So where are the Guardians going to put all these guys? We know they are a small-market, budget-conscious team, so their tendency has been to develop and promote their homegrown talent and trade away expensive veterans. So which veterans are likely on the outs?
MLB veterans on the bubble or unlikely to return:
- C Roberto Perez (terrible 2021 season; option might not be picked up)
- C Austin Hedges (also terrible 2021 season; possible non-tender)
- INF Yu Chang (underperformance, possible non-tender, out of options)
- OF Oscar Mercado (underperformance, out of options)
- RP Nick Wittgren (underperformance, possible non-tender)
- RP Bryan Shaw (FA)
- RP Blake Parker (FA)
So that’s seven roster spots in total. However, there are some devils in the details.
Even if they drop both Perez and Hedges, they’ll still need two. So let’s assume for now that they keep one, and add Lavastida to the 40. Even if he’s not ready, he’ll be a depth option, and we think they’ll create a spot for him with an eye towards the future.
It seems likely they’ll either non-tender or trade Mercado, who’s been a disappointment since his promising 2019 debut. Because his trade value is very low, he wouldn’t return much but a lottery ticket, if at all, so a non-tender is a strong possibility. That will open up one 40-man spot for Valera.
Assuming Cleveland intends to compete next year, they’ll try to improve the back-end of their bullpen. But this is an area where there is typically veteran churn, so even if they don’t bring back Wittgren, Shaw or Parker, we’d expect them to be replaced by similar types. This one’s a wash.
This is where all the action is, and where the tough decisions will be. Jose Ramirez isn’t going anywhere (again, assuming they’ll be competing). Amed Rosario has won the SS job (interestingly, he had lost it in New York to Andres Gimenez, but after both were traded in the Lindor deal, Rosario has taken it back).
Second base is currently being filled by Gimenez, who provides solid defense; but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s not much of a hitter. Around the league, 2B has become more of an offense-first position, and Cleveland might want to groom either Freeman or Rocchio, both of whom have more promising bats, for this role.
But wait, there’s more: SS Gabriel Arias is already on the 40, and he’s also one of the team’s top prospects. Where do you put him?
And oh by the way, another top prospect, Nolan Jones, is listed as a 3B, and is already on the 40 as well. Where do you put him, since he’s blocked there by Ramirez? He’s reportedly not great in a corner outfield spot. So maybe he’s the future at 1B?
That could be, because, over at 1B, Bobby Bradley has been given the chance to win the job permanently, but he hasn’t quite delivered. He’s a classic empty-power bat. He hits dingers, but not quite enough to compensate for a low average, low OBP, and high K-rate. There’s room for an upgrade there. (He’ll also be out of options in 2022, which hurts his trade value.)
Meanwhile, utility man Chang hasn’t provided much value, and he’s out of options. There are also depth guys like Ernie Clement and Owen Miller, who can fill in when necessary, but neither seems to be viable as an impact player. And then there’s Palacios, who looks MLB-ready, and Tena, who isn’t far behind. Neither is a top-rated prospect, but both are performing well. Outfielder Steven Kwan is in the same boat and is yet another Rule 5-eligible player. What do you do with those guys?
So what are the Guardians’ options?
Let’s start with the logjam at 2B.
The simple solution:
- *Trade Gimenez to clear room for one infielder (Freeman)
- *Non-tender Chang to clear room for one more infielder (Rocchio)
This would solve the problem of creating 40-man space for the two most promising infield prospects. You can then try Arias at 2B and see if he sticks there (or perhaps swap him with Rosario, since he’s reportedly a better defensive SS).
The downside here is that Gimenez’s trade value has declined quite a bit, due to his aforementioned hitting issues. Teams don’t seem to have much interest in light-hitting, glove-first middle infielders, because they’re plentiful and easy to replace. So don’t expect much. However, he could have some appeal to a rebuilding team, like the Cubs or Rockies, as a replacement for Javier Baez or Trevor Story, respectively.
A more complex solution:
Alternatively, the Cleveland front office could explore a consolidation trade scenario, where multiple players are packaged for one high-quality player. The benefit of this approach, assuming the players traded are either on the 40 currently or need to be added, is that it helps relieve the roster pressure, while upgrading the team at one spot.
In theory, you could package, say, Arias, Freeman and Jones for one high-value prospect or MLB player, thus saving two roster spots.
However, in reality, this is easier said than done, because most teams have more complex needs than just taking three guys the other team wants to trade.
Consider one example:
Let’s say Cleveland looks to upgrade 1B and targets Matt Olson of the A’s (who, we believe, are headed for a rebuild, and would have plenty of room for young infielders). Here’s one possibility:
- Cleveland gets:
- 1B Matt Olson
- RP Lou Trivino
- Oakland gets:
- 2B Tyler Freeman
- SP Daniel Espino
- SS Angel Martinez
- 1B Bobby Bradley
- LHP Joey Cantillo
The good news for the Guardians is that, in this trade, they get an upgrade at 1B, along with a replacement bullpen arm. They’ve relieved a little pressure on their 2B logjam, and eased a bit of next year’s offseason pressure by throwing in Martinez. And given their pitching strength, they can, arguably, afford to lose Espino and Cantillo.
But it’s not perfect, because the needs of the other team will almost never be the same as the needs of the Guardians. The A’s are not just going to take three infielders.
So in this scenario, the Guardians still need to find a spot for Rocchio (then again, maybe that’s solved by non-tendering Chang). They can keep Gimenez at 2B and punt that problem until Rocchio is ready to take over. But again, where do you put Arias? Maybe you trade him separately for an outfielder? You see the challenge here. The matches are unlikely to line up perfectly for Cleveland.
The other guys
Meanwhile, you’ll notice that we haven’t even talked about the four other Rule 5-eligible prospects listed above.
Bracho has really struggled this year, and has not looked like the interesting prospect he was in 2019. As a result, his trade value has cratered, and we’re guessing Cleveland leaves him exposed in the hopes that no other team would roster (at the MLB level) a guy who can’t hit High-A pitching.
Cantillo is more of a borderline case, because he missed most of 2021 with an abdominal injury. But we think he too will be left unprotected, as teams may not want to risk a Rule 5 pick on a guy who hasn’t pitched significant innings since 2019, and those were in A-ball.
Given all this traffic, it’s hard to imagine Palacios and Tena being added to the 40, so it seems more likely they too will either be left unprotected or traded for lottery tickets. Throw in Kwan in this category as well.
On the block
In any event, we think Cleveland will be seeking to trade at least four middle infielders. Which four?
Gimenez, Bracho, Palacios, and Tena look the most expendable, but because of that, they won’t hold much appeal to other teams.
Freeman, Rocchio, and Arias are more attractive trade candidates, so if the Guardians want to upgrade in other areas, two of these three could be on the block.
And then you have Martinez and Rodriguez coming as well. But that’s a problem for next year.
The other problem? Every other team knows the Guardians have a roster crunch issue, which means they have less leverage in negotiations. They might have to accept an underpay or two as a result.
In any event, the Cleveland front office figures to be quite busy this offseason. Who do you think they’ll trade?