I feel like we’ve talked about this each offseason for the last five years, and the narrative just hasn’t changed. The Cleveland Guardians have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to middle infield prospects. They’re all talented, can field like no other, but maybe don’t have the strongest bat. Eventually, the slog of talent is going to have to get broken up, the cream is going to rise, or another answer will come about. Unfortunately - or fortunately - for the Guardians, there is still the same issue.
The only difference now is that all of the talent that fans have swooned over the last couple of years is now bashing down the major-league door. It’s finally time for the Guardians to pay the fiddler and break up this insane group of middle infielders.
Last year, we watched as Terry Francona tried to unsuccessfully weave a laundry list of young middle infielders into the everyday lineup. It was a valiant effort spurred by choices that might not have all been determined by Francona himself. But what we all saw was that the continued inconsistent playing time for this young group wasn’t leading to any of them having success.
José Tena and Brayan Rocchio were certainly the bright spots last year amidst this group. Tyler Freeman looked like he just needed to see the field more. Gabriel Arias clearly needs more consistent playing time or more seasoning to work out his swing in the minors. Hopefully spring training will begin the weeding-out process on some of these guys. However, I think the issue that Cleveland faces is that it doesn't want to part with any of these guys before they get their fair shake.
What does a fair shake look like, though, especially with Andrés Giménez, José Ramírez and Josh Naylor patrolling the infield on most days? You’re not going to move those guys off of their starting spots unless something drastic happens, so you’ve left three listed infielders up to fend for one spot on the field. That’s not a system that works, nor is stashing the rest of them on the bench or in Triple-A.
What’s really making this situation worse is the additions of Deyvison De Los Santos (a top-ten prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks system who has to break camp or get returned to Arizona), Juan Brito surging through the minors, Angel Martinez making a name for himself, and Raynel Delgado and Micah Pries quickly showing they have the makings for MLB. And don’t even look past those guys at some of the other top prospects bound to advance through the system this year, such as Jake Fox, Khalil Watson and Dayan Frias.
The answer the Guardians have chosen is to factor some of these young guys into the designated hitter and outfield positions. Maybe that means they don’t believe in Will Brennan, who after a sizzling beginning to his career began to look lost at the plate. Maybe that means Myles Straw, who is essentially an automatic out at the plate, yet who has Gold Glove-level skills in center field, won’t last in Cleveland. But then what do you do with guys who are simply out of place in the outfield?
Jonathan Rodriguez is going to do everything he can to break camp with the club as an outfielder. So will Estevan Florial and George Valera. The Guardians are no strangers to moving talented players out of their comfort zone in order to get them into the lineup, but at what point does the constant movement hinder a player’s development? The Guardians are simply shooting their progress in the foot by refusing to move some of these pieces and make definitive decisions.
So 2024, along with a slew of other reasons, becomes a massively important year for the future of this franchise. The chickens are at home plate ready to roost, with more on the way ready to blare their noise to force the front office’s hand. I think what the Guardians have been hoping for is for one person to take up the mantle of “next in line” and run with it, but no one’s going to be able - no matter how talented - if they aren’t given consistent playing time throughout a season.
I still believe there is enough talent on this roster to make the playoffs this season, but what comes next after this year will likely be determined by what those ten guys do, or don’t do, this season. Oh, and don’t even bring up that Kyle Manzardo is inches away from splitting time with Naylor in the 1B/DH role.
Oh, and what about outfielder Petey Halpin, who’s close to being major-league ready as well? Lordy.