Yu Chang and Ernie Clement both came into 2022 looking like prospective utility men. The way they’ve started off in spring training could see them pushing for more regular roles in the lineup for the Cleveland Guardians.
Around the diamond, Cleveland has plenty of positions to finalize before Opening Day. One role that is up for grabs is the utility man role, between players like Yu Chang and Ernie Clement. Both came into camp knowing they would see plenty of reps around the infield due to their defensive versatility, but they may be pushing harder for more regular playing time than many anticipated coming into the spring.
With the ability to play multiple positions, and their scorching starts at the plate in spring training, both Clement and Chang are creating some tough choices for Cleveland’s front office. Let’s look at the case each has made not only for the utility role, but possibly for a more regular spot in the lineup.
Is Yu Chang finally finding his footing in Cleveland?
Chang has been an off-and-on fixture in Cleveland for the last couple of seasons. Prior to last year, it was hard to find him consistent at-bats due to the presence of players like Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, and José Ramírez blocking positions where he could play. As some of those blockages left in free agency or were shipped to other organizations, Chang began to see some opportunities for playing time.
The first taste of true major-league action for the young Taiwanese infielder came in 2019, when he would appear in 28 games for Cleveland and slash .178/.286/.274 across 84 plate appearances. Chang struggled mightily, as many youngsters often do, but he continued to work on his game and seek areas of improvement to make him a more viable option for the then-Indians.
In the shortened 2020 season, Chang would bounce between the alternate site in Lake County and Cleveland, only amassing ten appearances and 13 at-bats over the pandemic-shortened campaign. His performance at the plate would leave a lot to be desired, but he was still young enough and had enough potential upside the organization wanted to continue developing him.
In 2021, following the trade of Lindor to the New York Mets, Chang found himself as a potential option at shortstop in spring training. Although the job was much more likely to go to Andrés Giménez or Amed Rosario (who would ultimately end up with the everyday job), Chang had enough experience at short that he at least got some looks. He also would see action at first base, which was being decided between Bobby Bradley and Jake Bauers.
Across the regular season in 2021, Chang would bounce back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus a couple of times, with the early part of his season being a struggle, slashing only .176/.211/.287 with two dingers in 108 at-bats. The early returns for the season were not good, and with the burgeoning crop of young middle infielders in the minors, it looked like Chang’s time with Cleveland could be finite.
However, the post-All-Star break version of Chang was a different, more well-adjusted contributor to Cleveland’s lineup. In 129 at-bats after the All-Star break, he would go on to slash .271/.314/.543, good for an OPS of .857. Chang also hit seven home runs as he began to find his power stroke, showing some good upside at the plate.
With a strong end to 2021 in the bank, Chang came into spring training of 2022 with the expectation that he would be primarily vying for the utility job, with a chance at second base a possibility as well. As such, he is seeing time all over the infield to help fortify his defensive versatility.
In addition to flashing the leather around the diamond, Chang has been raking at the plate. We must keep in mind that these are just spring training numbers, and very limited numbers at that, but Chang has showcased a readiness to potentially contribute to the Guardians in a number of different spots where he could be needed.
At the very least, Chang is likely to be a contributor in the utility role for the Guardians. If necessary, we could also see him potentially slot into a more consistent spot in the lineup while playing first or second if no one steps above the pack to seize either spot on the diamond. The defensive versatility Chang has displayed, as well as a bat that rounded into form during the stretch run of last season, could make him a good option if, for instance, someone like Bobby Bradley continues to struggle defensively and at the plate.
Although Chang would not be the flashy pick or the high-caliber acquisition many Cleveland fans want to see right now, he has the potential to provide the Guardians with a good bat, while also being someone with the chops to handle an everyday job anywhere on the infield. If he continues his strong start to the spring, Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti will need to think long and hard about whether Chang is just a role player or if he has everyday upside.
Ernie Clement: Could a breakout sophomore season be coming in 2022?
Ernie Clement has never been considered one of the sky-high prospects in Cleveland’s system, but he still is well-regarded within the organization for a number of reasons. He has showcased immense potential in his defensive game and has been highly praised for his attitude and approach to the game.
In terms of on-the-field accolades in Cleveland at the plate, Clement is still figuring himself out. A fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft, he started his career with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers during the 2017 season. In 2018, Clement would move all the way from then-Low-A Lake County up to Double-A Akron, slashing .289/.358/.375 combined on the season. What was notable about his 2018 line was his good batting average, contrasted by only two home runs in his 419 at-bats.
In 2019, Clement would play most of his season in Akron, with a short stint in Triple-A Columbus to end the season. Across both levels he would slash .269/.323/.331. By this point, it was apparent that Clement was not a hitter who relied on power to contribute at the plate. He was, however, showing an ability to take what he could get and still get on base.
Clement would lose his 2020 season to the COVID-19 MiLB season cancellation, but would spend valuable time at Cleveland’s alternate site, getting valuable reps and continuing his development.
Last season would end up being the breakthrough year, with Clement starting at Triple-A Columbus before getting his first major-league call-up at the end of May before a longer stint that started in mid-June. From the get-go, Clement showcased immense defensive versatility, playing second and third base, as well as making a couple of limited appearances in left field.
At the plate, Clement did have some struggles acclimating to the majors. He slashed .231/.285/.339 while posting an OPS+ of only 71. As is often the experience for many rookies, the first taste of major-league action for Clement was not always pretty. With some highlight-worthy defensive gems in tow, and 121 at-bats to work from, he went into the offseason knowing what needed to be fixed coming into 2022.
Leading up to spring training through the end of the MLB lockout, Clement was considered a possibility at second base, but was much more heavily tied to the utility man’s job. As games have started and statistics have begun to accumulate, Clement has burst out of the gate as one of the hottest-hitting Guardians. With a number of roles yet to be settled, he is making it difficult to simply relegate him to a utility role.
If Clement can continue his hot streak at the plate, and maintain his strong defensive play around the infield, he should continue to boost his own stock for the upcoming season. Although his numbers are enchanting, especially given the projected holes in the lineup, one must keep in the mind the tricks Arizona can play. That being said, it is not unheard of for a player to take a strong spring training and turn that into a good start to the regular season. If this is the case, Clement should see regular playing time somewhere.
A Few Final Thoughts
Obviously, putting too much stock into spring training with youngsters hitting well is a tale as old as time. Transitioning back to the meteorological uncertainty that pervades Cleveland in the early springtime is something even seasoned players, such as Carlos Santana, have historically had trouble with. It is not outside of the realm of possibility to see players tearing it up in the desert only to come back and falter in the regular season.
However, the lack of moves to bring in talent from outside of the organization has left the team in a position where playing the hot hand is likely going to be the best course of action. If Ernie Clement and Yu Chang can take some of their Arizona magic and inject it into the lineup past Opening Day (which could certainly be a big if), they should be seeing as much time as possible on the field. Otherwise, rolling out has-beens and players with established track records of inconsistency is only going to serve to alienate an already frustrated fanbase and do more damage to the inaugural season of Cleveland Guardians baseball.