The Cleveland Guardians didn't have many questions coming into spring training this year (though you can hear us talk about position battles in our most recent episode of the California Penal League podcast). With most of the roster set, their time in Arizona will be a time to watch the next wave of reinforcements who are on their way to Cleveland when injuries and ineffectiveness arise throughout the year,
One area where there is always turnover, and always opportunities, is the bullpen. An incredible strength for the Guardians, especially in the second half of 2022, Cleveland’s pen looks to once again be a strength, led by standout closer Emmanuel Clase. Barring a major surprise or injury, Clase will be joined by James Karinchak, Sam Hentges (depending on the severity of his shoulder inflammation), Trevor Stephan, Eli Morgan and Enyel De Los Santos.
With the Guardians likely to carry 13 pitchers north to Cleveland, that leaves one permanent spot in the bullpen, and one spot likely to be filled by a bullpen arm early in April when the team only needs four starters for a stretch. Here are six names to watch in the battle for those spots as tpring training progresses:
Cody Morris is a 26-year-old right-hander who is familiar to Guardians fans after making his debut in 2022. His stuff is electric, and he has already shown that it plays at the big-league level. Unable to ramp up his stamina in 2022, he worked out of Cleveland’s bullpen and pitched 23.2 innings with a 2.28 ERA.
The issue for Morris has never been stuff or effectiveness. Rather, he has been unable to stay healthy, which has hindered his development and prevented him from reaching his potential as a consistent major-league starter. Most recently, shoulder issues have bothered him intermittently over the past two seasons and forced him to work as a reliever. The Guardians have a number of starting pitching options, and a set five-man rotation to start the season. Their best option may be to commit to making him a full-time high-leverage reliever in 2023.
Tim Herrin is a less-heralded prospect than Morris; however, he may have just as strong a shot at having an impact in Cleveland this season. The 26-year-old lefty was drafted by the Guardians in 2018 and added to their 40-man roster to protect him prior to the Rule 5 Draft in November. While his 4.02 ERA across 69.1 innings (46 games) at two minor-league levels in 2022 doesn’t jump off the page, there is a lot to like.
Herrin’s underlying numbers point to a future as a possible force out of the bullpen. Last season, he recorded 101 strikeouts and only 23 walks, for a 4.39 K/BB ratio. He regularly pitched with his fastball at 95-97 mph, touching 99 at times. With Sam Hentges being the only lefty in the Guardians bullpen, and Herrin having experience with multiple-inning stints, and therefore is not just a left-handed specialist, he seems likely to be one of the top options right out of the gate.
Joey Cantillo is a 23-year-old lefty, having the same advantage as Herrin as a lefty trying to make a team with limited left-handed options. Cantillo was originally drafted by the San Diego Padres and came to Cleveland as part of the Mike Clevinger trade.
Cantillo's stuff is not as electric as Herrin’s, as his fastball sits at 91-93 mph and will not blow hitters away. However, his best pitch is his changeup, which makes his fastball more effective even without the high-end velocity. In 2022, he dominated with a 1.93 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) and 87 Ks in 60.2 innings pitched. The Guardians have had recent success turning fringe starting prospects into valuable relief arms, and Cantillo’s ability to pitch multiple innings or even make spot starts could work to his advantage over the course of a long season. Expect to see Cantillo in Cleveland even if he does not break camp with the team.
Jason Bilous is a 25-year-old right-hander the Guardians claimed off of waivers from the White Sox in early February. His numbers do not jump off the page at first glance (6.30 ERA in 31 games, 21 starts in 2022), but there are some reasons to think that he is part of the Guardians’ plans for 2023.
First, they gave him a coveted 40-man roster spot, which gives him an advantage over the final two names on this list. Second, the Guardians' penchant for turning fringe starters into usable relievers points to this being a project they will likely commit to if he has any measure of success in spring training. Even without converting full-time to the bullpen, Bilous is someone who profiles as a depth piece. While he is likely not a long-term solution in any role, his options and flexibility make him the valuable type of piece that every team needs throughout a long season.
Cade Smith is a 23-year-old right-hander who seems to have little chance of breaking camp with the big-league club. While he earned a non-roster invite to camp, he will have his time with the team interrupted while pitching for team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
Originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2017, Smith did not sign at the time, instead pitching for the University of Hawaii before signing with the Guardians as a minor-league free agent in 2020. He has shown progress every year, pitching to a 2.93 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 61.1 IP in 2022 before pitching an additional six games in the Arizona Fall League, which has frequently been an important developmental stop for young pitchers. While the trip to the WBC and status as a non-roster invitee make it unlikely that he will begin the season in Cleveland, he will definitely be an option as the season progresses.
Similar to Smith, Touki Toussaint is unlikely to make the Guardians roster out of spring training. The former top prospect is now 26 years old, and while he did pitch 25.1 innings in the majors in 2022 for the Los Angeles Angels, he is another non-roster invitee to the Guardians camp.
The Guardians signed him to a minor-league contract, likely as an insurance and depth piece after he was designated for assignment by Los Angeles ahead of the Rule 5 Draft in November 2022. He elected free agency and will look to resurrect his career in Cleveland, where he joins numerous other options of live arms with lots of potential who could be called upon throughout the season.