2024 Guardians: Where Every Day Is Fry Day

Sad Sam Jones

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With early news, I"ll get an early start while Stephen Vogt is winning me over with his introductory press conference right now. Aside from simply the strategic views, he got a little glassy-eyed talking about what Opening Day will be like in Oakland, where he spent the majority of his career and being from California will have a lot of friends and family in the stands. He also talked about his wife being a special ed teacher and the work they do for kids with autism.

Vogt was hired on Monday to become Cleveland's first new manager in 11 years. At 39, he's the second youngest manager in the game. This was really the first managerial search Cleveland has had since the 2009/2010 off-season. When Terry Francona told them he was interested in the job following the firing of Manny Acta, their search ended there and Francona went on to become the winningest manager in Cleveland history. Even when Acta was hired, he was a hot commodity at the time and I don't recall Cleveland casting a wide net like they did this time around.

Today they also hired former Giants bullpen and catching coach Craig Albernaz to be their new field coordinator. Albernaz had also been a candidate for the managerial job and knows Vogt from their time together in the Rays minor league system. He joins a staff that already includes a third former catcher and long-time Cleveland staple Sandy Alomar and pitching coach Carl Willis who has filled that role in Cleveland during two different stints that total 13 years.

Cleveland has already presumably addressed the catching situation for 2024 by selecting Christian Bethancourt off waivers from the Rays and promptly releasing Cam Gallagher who inexplicably survived the entire 2023 season in Cleveland without doing anything well. Bethancourt gives the Guards a legitimate backup to Bo Naylor, who put up an OPS+ of 124 in the second half and has the defensive tools and athleticism to really benefit from the tutelage of Albernaz, Vogt and Alomar.

The Guardians have a full 40-man roster at the moment, but there should be a couple of transactions before Tuesday when they need to protect any prospects from the Rule 5 draft. There are currently three players on their top 25 prospect list who would be Rule 5 eligible: starting pitchers Daniel Espino (#3) and Tanner Burns (19) and infielder Dayan Frias (25). I expect both pitchers to be protected. Espino isn't currently healthy (shoulder surgery) which has been true more often than not during his career, but he still has too much upside to leave dangling. Current roster fodder includes veteran vagabond reliever Michael Kelly and first baseman Alfonso Rivas who was picked up off waivers last week for some unknown reason. Considering Rivas adds nothing they don't already have covered with Josh Naylor and Kyle Manzardo, I assume the idea is to try to sneak him through waivers in a few days so he can fill out the roster in Columbus next year. I don't know that Frias needs protecting since he's in Hi-A, hasn't exactly set the world on fire and has about a half-dozen infield prospects ahead of him in the system.

The biggest challenge for Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff this winter is going to be adding an actual major league bat to the outfield. Repeating the slap-hitting outfield of Kwan-Straw-Brennan would be unacceptable. Kwan has the on-base skills and the Gold Gloves that keep him in the starting lineup. Straw has proven he's never going to hit and he doesn't utilize his speed even when he does reach base. Unless he can repeat his phenomenal defensive showing of 2022, he's not someone who should play ever day, and unless Will Brennan suddenly starts drawing walks, he should be nothing more than the strong side of a platoon with Straw. Oscar Gonzalez and Gabriel Arias haven't done anything to earn a starting role (Arias has shown he should never face a left-hander) and top outfield prospect George Valera battled injuries again that set him back and eliminated a potential taste of major league baseball in 2023. The team recently added Johnathan Rodriguez to the 40-man roster, who has a background similar to Gonzalez. He does have more pedigree than Sponge Bob as a former 3rd round pick and the #24 prospect in the system, as opposed to Gonzalez who wasn't even a top 50 prospect and was exposed to the Rule 5 draft before reaching Cleveland. However, they are similar in that they're both big right-handers who were never projected for a starting job in Cleveland's outfield, but tapped into their power after reaching AA and hit their way on to the radar. The Guardians cannot expect to return to contention though with this gaggle of misfit toys as the plan for 2024.

Two kids who could force their way into these plans by the end of 2024 are their Arizona "Fall-Stars" Kyle Manzardo and Chase DeLauter. Manzardo, a top 100 prospect in the game, was acquired from Tampa for Aaron Civale, which then facilitated the trading of Josh Bell to clear room for another 1B/DH in 2024. Manzardo projects to spend most of his time at DH. Naylor made major strides as a first baseman this year and Manzardo is below average at the position with an arm that probably excludes him from ever playing the outfield. DeLauter was Cleveland's 1st round pick in 2022 and is a capable center fielder. Like Manzardo, his hit tool is his best but both are adding power to their games. DeLauter is currently a doubles machine who will open 2024 in AA. His size (6'4", 235 lb) probably means he'll end a corner outfielder, but a potentially plus one on defense with a bat that can play anywhere. He's my top reason to get to Akron games early next year before he gets promoted.

Despite the offensive struggles, the rest of the AL Central can probably start focusing on rebuilds if Cleveland can simply get a full season out of a rotation of Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams and Logan Allen. I have no doubt Bieber would have been traded this off-season if not for the elbow injury that only allowed him to make two starts in the second half. At least they came at the end of the year and he's presumed healthy now, but his trade value has no doubt tanked and deciding what to do with him during the 2024 season is going to be difficult both strategically and as a potential public relations disaster. Trade him while his value is supressed? Trade him while the team is in playoff contention? Keep him and get nothing in return but QO compensation? Keep him and watch his performance deteriorate?

The infield roster jam of Gabriel Arias, Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio and Jose Tena is going to necessitate a trade or two over the winter whether they go big or simply trade today's roster issues for tomorrow's as they did last year in swapping Nolan Jones for Juan Brito (the latter of whom will be part of that infield glut by the end of 2024, along with Angel Martinez)... so I expect a busier hot stove league this year than last.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Tanner Bibee finished in 2nd place for Rookie of the Year voting. Not bad for a guy who entered the year looking like a possible September call-up. Cleveland has not had a Rookie of the Year Award winner since Sandy Alomar Jr in 1990. However, their list of 2nd place finishers since then includes:

Kenny Lofton (1992)
Manny Ramirez (1994)
CC Sabathia (2001)
Francisco Lindor (2015)
Steven Kwan (2022)
Tanner Bibee (2023)

…Brayan Rocchio's gotta be the odds-on favorite to be runner-up in 2024.
 
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Sad Sam Jones

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Cleveland has moved on from two of their pitchers over the past week...

Cal Quantrill was a surprise DFA, although there's certainly some logic behind the move. If/when the Guards have a fully healthy rotation, Quantrill is not a top 5 talent. His ceiling is clearly a rung below Bieber, McKenzie, Bibee, Williams and Allen, so the projected $6.5M he's set to make in 2024 is a hefty price tag for a long-reliever/swing man in a small market. He would have been a great depth piece to have though, considering all the injuries the rotation was dealt in 2023. Quantrill may not fit in their ideal rotation, but he's also a clear step above their other 6th man options (Xzavion Curry who seems better in the pen and... Cody Morris who had sort of a lost year between injuries and an undefined role... Hunter Gaddis who just kind of sucks). The team has said they'll be in the market for starting depth this winter, but also that experience is not a requirement. I expect them to currently be scouring other teams' AAA staffs, targeting the sort of pitcher they feel is underappreciated or under-coached who can benefit from their development machine.

The Guardians also made their 2,853rd trade with the Padres over the past few years with a one-for-one reliever swap of Enyel De Los Santos for Scott Barlow. Although De Los Santos has been kind of an underrated workhorse the past two years, it seems Cleveland just doesn't trust his stuff to translate into a later inning role. They prefer Barlow's experience on a staff where the late innings guys were streaky in 2023 (Clase and Stephan had prolonged struggles and Karinchak pitched his way back to AAA for half the season). Barlow struggled some himself last year, although he always keeps the ball in the park. This was a no-brainer for a San Diego team that needs to cut payroll, and honestly a head-scratcher for me. Barlow should be a marginally better pitcher, but give me the guy who's 3 years younger with 3 years of team control left over the 31-year-old entering the last year of his contract and owed an extra $6M. They've basically already reallocated Quantrill's money just to upgrade from De Los Santos to Barlow, which seems like a poor use of funds. I'm guessing they see Curry moving into De Los Santos' role at the front of the pen.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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He's Ben Lively, but he looks dead to me.

The Guards have added Lively to the pitching staff on a major league contract. He'll make the minimum, but I'm not sure why he required a major league deal since he's about to turn 32 and has a 5.05 ERA in just over 200 career innings. I generally give the benefit of the doubt to Cleveland for their ability to find pitching they can get the most out of, but I'm not impressed with this. If Lively is their first option for the rotation when someone goes down with an injury or gets traded, it's going to be a rough 2024 season.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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It comes as no surprise at all to me that Cleveland has signed Carlos Carrasco to a minor league deal. It never set well with me that they traded him in the first place after he'd taken a bit of a hometown discount to spend the rest of his career in Cleveland. He was more involved in local charities and volunteer work than any Cleveland athlete in recent memory. They currently have a need for rotational depth with two guys at the top who suffered arm injuries last year and three second-year kids (not to mention continued trade rumors about Bieber). If someone doesn't make it through spring training, Carrasco could be the #5 starter and he's a guy who will offer whatever he can to help out the young arms and if there's anything left in his arm Carl Willis is the best bet to find it. This would also push Xzavion Curry further down the emergency plan for starting pitchers and keep him in the bullpen where he exceeded expectations last year.

My only question is if Carrasco doesn't make the opening day roster, will he head to Columbus and wait for an opportunity or retire? I don't think he's coming to Cleveland to audition for a job anyplace else. I imagine the Guardians would be happy to find a place for him in the organization post-playing career if that's something he wants.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Daniel Espino, the former Top 20 MLB prospect, will miss his second straight season to shoulder surgery. Best case scenario is that he'll go just short of 3 years without taking the mound in a game (his last game was April 29, 2022). He was completely embarrassing AA hitters at the age of 21 and could still return to the field at age 24, but it's hard to imagine his arm is ever going to be what it was before multiple serious injuries. At the very least, I think his only path forward now will be out of the bullpen. He's become reminiscent of former Tribe 1st rounder Adam Miller, who could hit triple-digits but was really something special because of his slider. Unfortunately, the torque he created with his slider also destroyed his finger and four surgeries on it eventually ended his career short of ever reaching the majors.
 

Scoops Bolling

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Yeah, I made a Adam Miller comp on Espino elsewhere (and maybe even here too), and at this point I'd lay higher odds on Espino never pitching again than I would him amounting to a useful MLB player. With staggeringly rare exception you cannot throw that hard, particularly with that hard a slider or sweeper, and keep your arm healthy in the long term. My intuition is also that throwing that hard at a younger age, like Espino did, is even less likely to hold up. The guys who manage it are typically physical freaks (Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, etc). If a teenager is throwing 100 mph with a 90 mph slider and he isn't 6'6" 225 lbs, I'm not sure I'd even bother drafting him. It's one of the reasons why I'm now concerned about, Guardians' rival, Tigers' prospect Jackson Jobe who is now apparently registering in the triple digits. 95 mph is plenty, juicing up occasionally an extra mph or two when needed. These all out velocities just can't be maintained.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Considering the complete lack of moves over the winter, Cleveland finds themselves with a lot of unsettled roster spots just a couple of weeks away from opening day. Injuries have opened up a short-term spot in the rotation and long-term one in bullpen and the question marks in the lineup don't seem to be any more settled than they were entering spring training.

Trevor Stephan is expected to miss all of 2024 to elbow surgery – it will be on the UCL although they aren't referring to it as Tommy John surgery just yet. There was expected to be a battle for one spot in the bullpen, but this coupled with shoulder fatigue for James Karinchak and swelling in a finger on Sam Hentges' pitching hand could leave them with up to three spots to fill. The latter two would be short-term and Karinchak is participating in spring training again but simply doesn't have time to get ready for opening day without being rushed. What we think we know is that Emmanuel Clase, Scott Barlow, Nick Sandlin and Eli Morgan will open the season in the pen. Cade Smith, a big right-handed Canadian with an upper-90s fastball. He's still developing his slider and cutter, but has an excellent chance to make the team out of camp. Tim Herrin, who made the pen last spring before making his MLB debut, but had up and down results, could make the team either as a second lefty or as Hentges' placeholder if he needs time on the IL.

Xzavion Curry is a lock to be on the roster, but the question is what role he'll open in. Gavin Williams missed two turns in the rotation with elbow discomfort. His MRI checked out fine and he's presuming throwing, but like Karinchak in the pen, he's run out of time to build up his arm enough for opening day, so there's a spot up for grabs for the first 2-3 turns through the rotation. Curry is battling Ben Lively for that opportunity, but thanks to Lively's major league contract, both will probably make the roster now with one of them stretching out the pen. They could also give that shot in the rotation to veteran Carlos Carrasco. It seems less likely they would ask Carrasco to pitch in relief, but he's been intriguing enough this month that I could still see any scenario for him playing out – temporary 5th starter, continuing to work himself into shape in AAA or even retiring if he doesn't make the team.

Other Notes: They've been a little slow to ramp up Triston McKenzie after he missed a few months with an elbow strain in 2023, but he's throwing free and easy, no more restrictions and has allowed only 3 base runners in 5 innings. He's expected to be ready. Shane Bieber, who also missed a few months with a bad elbow, worked with Driveline over the winter and recovered 2 mph on his fastball. He's throwing harder than he has the past two years and has looked good aside from a bad weather game.

The starting lineup could be the same one they were sending out at the end of 2023, but changes are likely coming. Every outfielder likely to make the roster has experience in center field, so they won't put up with another year abysmal offense from Myles Straw. Estevan Florial has struggled badly this month (3-for-26, 2 bb/12 k), but considering they traded talent for him and he's out of options, they'll give him every opportunity to make the team. Ramon Laureano gives them a veteran backup, but bats righty like Straw so is more likely to platoon with Will Brennan in right field. Brennan had one of the worst exit velocities in the league last year, spending too much time just trying to put the ball in play, but he has a .216 ISO through 19 spring training at-bats.

Neither Gabriel Arias nor Brayan Rocchio is having a good spring training. I expect Arias to be given the initial shot to play shortstop again, and there's no guarantee that the loser of that competition opens the year on the MLB roster. I fully expect Arias to no longer be the starter after May as he further cements that he's completely unplayable against left-handed pitching (.356 OPS in 144 career PA). Tyler Freeman has looked better than both while also learning to play center field. While he might not have the ceiling to get the same shot that Arias and Rocchio have, Freeman may get the first opportunity to steal the shortstop job by being on the roster. Since Freeman and David Fry give Cleveland a backup at literally every position between them, they are both near locks for the roster.

Joining Freeman and Fry on the bench will be Austin Hedges in the backup catcher/clubhouse leader/Crash Davis role. That leaves one spot open for Florial or Rochhio (or Arias) or Rule 5 pick Deyvison De Los Santos. The latter has impressive raw power for a 21-year-old, but would need to earn his keep as a DH at least until he can comfortably play right field. I'd love to see them work out a trade with the D-Backs and let him continue to develop in the minors as he should.

Other Notes: I don't see Kyle Manzardo, the top 100 prospect acquired for Aaron Civale last summer, to make the opening day roster, but if the team continues to struggle scoring he could join them sooner rather than later. He and Josh Naylor can split the 1B/DH duties. Both are lefties, but both are also part of the long-term plan. George Valera will yet again open a season on the IL, this time with recurring hamstring issues. It's been a frustrating creep towards the majors for Valera. He'd have been playing in Cleveland last season if not for the myriad of IL trips. I think by the time Valera returns to the field, he'll have been passed by 2022 1st round pick Chase DeLauter, although Valera projects as a right fielder and DeLauter should remain in center. DeLauter and Manzardo were both standouts in the Arizona Fall League and have even the best the most impressive hitters in big league camp. DeLauter only has a month of experience above A-ball, but if he continues to play as he has, I expect him to be the starting center fielder in Cleveland by the end of 2024.

With Espino and Stephan about to spend the entire season on the 60-day IL (and De Los Santos possibly returning to the D-Backs), opening up 40-man roster space will not be an issue.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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There had been some thought that Kyle Manzardo had a real shot to make the opening day roster, but he was reassigned today. Meanwhile, Chase DeLauter is still with the big club and now 10-for-21 with 3 home runs. I still can't imagine him breaking camp with the Guardians but it's certainly getting tempting. At this point, he's gotta be the best Cleveland outfield prospect since Grady Sizemore.

In the shortstop battle, both Arias and Rocchio hit their first home runs of the spring. Arias still looks awful while Rocchio also added a double and now at least seems luke warm.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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I suspect Carlos Carrasco just won himself a MLB job on his birthday with 6 strong innings today – 1 earned run on 2 hits. Tyler Beede was gaining momentum as a dark horse candidate to keep Gavin William's spot in the rotation warm for the first couple of weeks of the season, but I think he's more likely to report to AAA and bide his time. He also has a track record that strongly suggests this month has simply been a mirage.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Myles Straw being placed on waivers is something I certainly didn't foresee, especially with him enjoying a strong spring training, but he is what he is and it's only a matter of time before any hot streak of his ends. The hope is that some large market team is in dire need of center field defense, but Straw will likely be in the opening day lineup at AAA Columbus. He's still owed $20.45M through 2026 (including 2027 buyout). There are 11 confirmed position players for the opening day roster:

C Bo Naylor
C Austin Hedges
1B Josh Naylor
2B Andres Gimenez
SS Brayan Rocchio
3B Jose Ramirez
LF Steven Kwan

OF Ramond Laureano
CF/INF Tyler Freeman

INF/OF Gabriel Arias
C/INF/OF David Fry

That leaves two spots open for Will Brennan, Estevan Florial and Deyvison De Los Santos. I'm not sure why Brennan has been a question mark this spring, but unless they really want to keep all options available, he should be on the roster and get the bulk of playing time in right field. His defense in right is a bigger plus if middle infielder Freeman is going to see significant time in center. If Cleveland could work out a trade with Arizona to secure De Los Santos' rights, it would also make the decisions much easier. Clearing Straw at least gives them more leverage in such a trade because they can conceivably keep him on the roster anyway, giving him a shot at regular at-bats as the DH. The other thing removing Straw from the roster might do is expedite Kyle Manzardo's or Chase DeLauter's call to Cleveland.

It's been announced that Rocchio will get the bulk of the work at shortstop to open the season, but Arias is confirmed to be going north with the team and could get some opportunities in right field if Laureano becomes the starter in center. He could also be the primary backup at first base. Obviously, management likes flexibility. I'm just happy to see that performance is being prioritized over any preconceived pecking order.

The pitching staff is still murky, but both Carlos Carrasco and Tyler Beede have made the team. Only one will get a short-term shot at starting while the other is the long reliever and when Gavin Williams returns (probably mid-April), one of them will be out of a job altogether. Given both of their backgrounds, I'd be surprised if it's not Carrasco starting. The bullpen probably isn't worth fretting over as it will likely change within a week due to minor injuries (Sam Hentges) and a virus that made its way around the clubhouse (Xzavion Curry and Ben Lively).
 
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Sad Sam Jones

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De Los Santos has been offered back to Arizona and, while things could still change, the roster is basically complete. They haven't announced the #5 starter, but it's Carrasco. There's going to be a lot of juggling between center, right and DH, which is most likely going to be a huge failure until they promote Kyle Manzardo and/or Chase DeLauter. Floriel was a complete trainwreck but it's cost too much to give him this opportunity to not see it through. Players who will be taking over a spot within the first few weeks of the season are in parenthesis.

C - Bo Naylor
1B - Josh Naylor
2B - Andres Gimenez
SS - Brayan Rocchio
3B - Jose Ramirez
LF - Steven Kwan
CF - Tyler Freeman/Will Brennan
RF - Ramon Laureano/Will Brennan

C - Austin Hedges
C/1B/3B/LF/RF - David Fry
SS/1B/RF - Gabriel Arias
OF - Estevan Floriel

S1 - Shane Bieber
S2 - Triston McKenzie
S3 - Tanner Bibee
S4 - Logan Allen
S5 - Carlos Carrasco (Gavin Williams)

CL - Emmanuel Clase
RP - Scott Barlow
RP - Nick Sandlin
RP - Eli Morgan
RP - Tim Herrin
RP - Hunter Gaddis (Xzavion Curry)
RP - Tyler Beede (Sam Hentges)
RP - Cade Smith (James Karinchak)

Those may not necessarily be the pitchers the returning relievers replace. If Herrin isn't performing, they'll swap out lefties when Hentges is ready. I think Gaddis will get a lot of leash this year to nail down a spot in the pen. He never looked like a future piece of the rotation but has pitched well in relief, so it's probably a permanent destination for him as it was with Hentges and Morgan… Cleveland likes to find where a pitcher will succeed and not second-guess it. Although he was never under serious consideration for an April roster spot, Franco Aleman is a bullpen prospect to keep an eye on. He's 6'6", 23-years-old and averages 96 MPH on a fastball that can hit triple-digits to go with a sharp slider. Things clicked for him right around the time he was promoted to AA last year, where he didn't allow an earned run in 24 innings while striking out 38.
 

jon abbey

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I usually root against former Yankees, but I am pulling for Florial, I don't think he got a fair shot in NY. Nice to see him make the team at least!

Oscar Gonzalez has had a good spring and would I think get the final NY bench spot on merit but they are loaded with OFs and need an IF in that spot.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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I was optimistic about 2024 if the starting pitching could stay healthy, but the fabled rotation of Bieber-McKenzie-Bibee-Williams-Logan will never come to exist. Although this oddly increases the chances that Bieber could actually pitch for Cleveland beyond 2024.

When you go through the injuries and matriculation rate the Guardians have, eventually the well runs dry. Daniel Espino and Joey Cantillo were the prospects closest to the majors but both are also currently injured (Espino probably beyond repair) and were longshots for 2024 anyway. Unless they still see Xzavion Curry as a starter, the only homegrown talent that might get an opportunity at some point in 2024 is Will Dion, but he's an unheralded junkballer... a lefty who emulates Kershaw but is the next Plesac at best. If Bieber had stayed healthy this year, it's likely he'd have been traded in July for a starter ready to graduate to the majors.

Carlos Carrasco should remain in the rotation for as long as he can perform. If not, it's Curry or retreads like Tyler Beede and Ben Lively. Hunter Gaddis is in the same boat as Curry but with less upside, so I think he's a reliever permanently. Presumably, one of those guys will need to fill in for a few weeks anyway since Gavin Williams has essentially just started his spring training.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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An early look on the prospect front…

Kyle Manzardo and Chase DeLauter are both off to cold starts after hot spring training performances that looked like they could accelerate their arrival times. If they're brief slumps, I still expect Manzardo to be in Cleveland before the All-Star break and think DeLauter will make his MLB debut later in the year. If Manzardo and Josh Naylor split 1B/DH duties and DeLauter fills the hole in center going into 2025, the only position that will be left up for grabs long term will be right field.

Johnathan Rodriguez has been under-the-radar but could get a chance at that right field job before the end of the year. He's off to a strong start in AAA and, aside from Jhonkensy Noel, likely has the most raw power in the system. A significant improvement in his walk rate over the past couple of years is encouraging and could set him apart from former under-the-radar RF prospect Oscar Gonzalez. He might not have Noel's ceiling but with a higher floor, he's more likely to get major league opportunities.

Another prospect who could make his debut in Cleveland in 2024 is reliever Andrew Walter, who made his pro debut last week as the closer for AA-Akron. He uses a fastball-slider combo, but there's some question of how well he can get if he relies on his heater as much as he did in college. It clocks in at 94-96 MPH and touches upper-90s, with deception and good command. He was drafted as a supplemental 2nd round pick and could be the first from that draft to reach the majors. He has struck out 7 of the first 13 batters he's faced.

Cleveland's first round pick from that draft, Ralphy Velazquez, is also off to a hot start. He had his first two-homer game on Wednesday for Lo-A Lynchburg and combined with last year's results in a week of rookie ball games, he has 4 home runs in his first 10 professional games. He's an 18-year-old playing full-season ball, so it will be interesting to see if they allow his defensive role to slow down his development. He was listed as a catcher when drafted but has never played the position exclusively, so it would take quite a while for him to really learn the position. However, most experts don't think he can stick behind the plate long-term anyway and all four of his games this season have come at first base so it doesn't seem they're prioritizing it. He projects to be an on-base machine with power in search of a spot to play. If he's still blocked by the Naylor brothers and Manzardo in a few years, I guess that will be a nice problem to have. I can also see Josh Naylor being a guy who takes a hometown discount to stay in Cleveland and keep playing with his brother. If anyone from that group is capable of playing right field, it's Bo Naylor but he's too valuable behind the plate. I'd love to get a chance to see Velazquez play for Hi-A Lake County by the end of the summer, but I think he only gets promoted as his offense demands it.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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I love being so wrong about Josh Naylor. I didn't like him as part of the Clevinger trade, thought he didn't have a place in the field, and didn't have a 1B/RF/DH level bat. Now it won't surprise me if he wins a batting title at some point. In the past 365 days, he's put up a line of .330/.377/.541... and that doesn't really capture how good he's been because he was slumping last year until mid-May. He even has a strikeout rate lower than Steven Kwan's this year. He's also developed into at least an average defensive first baseman – a pretty good one by some metrics.
 

LogansDad

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I love being so wrong about Josh Naylor. I didn't like him as part of the Clevinger trade, thought he didn't have a place in the field, and didn't have a 1B/RF/DH level bat. Now it won't surprise me if he wins a batting title at some point. In the past 365 days, he's put up a line of .330/.377/.541... and that doesn't really capture how good he's been because he was slumping last year until mid-May. He even has a strikeout rate lower than Steven Kwan's this year. He's also developed into at least an average defensive first baseman – a pretty good one by some metrics.
He's also just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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I was not a fan of the Ben Lively signing, but… wow, I'm looking forward to seeing how he fares against a team other than the Red Sox.

After a rough first week of the season, Kyle Manzardo has been tearing it up in AAA – .308/.400/.585 through 18 games. It may not be long before Cleveland DFA's their second veteran outfielder (Ramon Laureano) in favor of youth. They might like to see Estevan Florial keep hitting a bit longer before they feel comfortable releasing Laureano and giving those at-bats to a Manzardo/Jose Naylor rotation through the 1B/DH spots. David Fry and Gabriel Arias can also play right field though, so they don't need to keep Laureano around just to fill a spot. They could also to give a first shot to Johnathan Rodriguez, who's putting up a similar .300/.410/.543 as the right fielder in AAA and, unlike Manzardo, is already on the 40-man roster.

Gavin Williams (elbow discomfort) will likely start a rehab assignment by the end of the week. Sam Hentges (finger swelling) has already started one in AA.

Checking Lynchburg Hillcats box scores is quickly becoming a daily habit. In addition to last year's #1 pick Ralphy Velazquez, they have another 18-year-old prospect in the lineup whose name is already familiar – Jaison Chourio, younger brother of Brewers phenom Jackson. Jaison is a plus center fielder with good speed, but his offense is the wildcard. He's shown good pitch recognition and discipline in the past, but now he's also showing power potential with a .310/.500/.571 line through his first 12 games of 2024. Given their age, I don't think Cleveland will be aggressive in promoting either Velazquez or Chourio, but I'm hoping to get to go see them yet this year in Lake County (Hi-A).
 

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Gavin Williams has experienced a setback with continued elbow discomfort. He's received an anti-inflammatory injection and they'll hope for better results in 7 days.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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There's been a George Valera sighting! He returned from a hamstring injury to play his first game of the year at AAA tonight and went 2-for-3 with a double and two walks. Kyle Manzardo is just killing AAA pitchers (.323 BA, 8 HR) and is forcing Cleveland's hand to make a move soon. Releasing Ramon Laureano is an easy decision, but the problem is that he rarely plays now anyway, so that's not going to get Manzardo many at-bats. Estevan Florial has shown too much promise and has no options while Tyler Freeman and Will Brennan have also shown enough to avoid demotion. They could bring Manzardo up, but it would probably start with working 3 out of 4 guys into the lineup each night.

Down in AA, Chase DeLauter has missed a few games with a sore foot. They don't seem to think it's serious, but it's the same foot that he once had surgery on and put him on the IL again last year, so they're being cautious. If the weather cooperates, I'll be going to my first Akron game of the year this weekend, so I'm hoping he'll back on the field by then.

Cleveland's most fun prospect might be last year's 10th round pick Matt "Tugboat" Wilkinson. In a start last week for Lo-A Lynchburg, Tugboat pitched 6 hitless innings with 15 strikeouts. He followed it up tonight with 5 more shutout innings, although it came with a *disappointing* 5 K's. Tugboat's a 6'1", 270 lb. Canadian lefty who has allowed just 8 hits in 25.2 innings this year while striking out 46. He only throws in the low 90's but has great movement on everything with a devastating slider and good changeup.
 

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It turns out that Chase DeLauter has a fracture in the same foot that has sidelined him each of the past two years... starting to panic a little.

Steven Kwan strained his hamstring yesterday, is out of the lineup today and is awaiting results of an MRI. It's deemed day-to-day for now, but Kyle Manzardo was kept out of the Columbus lineup today, logically because he'll be promoted if Kwan goes on the IL. Ramon Laureano was getting playing time this weekend because of his familiarity with the Angels pitching, which has gotten good results so far… but with a healthy Kwan could also have been interpreted as giving Laureano enough rope to hang himself. Either way, I think Manzardo makes his debut really soon.
 

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Guardians' Hi-A starter Steve Hajjar, who was a PTBNL in the Will Benson trade (after Cincinnati acquired him from Minnesota in the Tyler Mahle trade) put up one of the most unfathomable pitching lines I've seen last night:

Screenshot 2024-05-11 at 11.59.18 AM.png

After a 1-2-3 first, his second inning went:
Walk
Walk
HBP
HBP - run scores
Wild Pitch - run scores
Ground Out - run scores
Ground Out - run scores
Strikeout

Through 125.2 career innings, he's walked 102 batters.
 

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It felt like Cleveland's offense finally broke out today with 7 runs, but they still had only 5 hits. Fortunately, all of them went for extra bases (although Florial's triple was really a single and 2-base error). Steven Kwan is clearly the most valuable player on the team. In his absence, they have no one who can pull off even a mediocre impression of a leadoff hitter. The team went from averaging 4.97 runs per game with Kwan to 3.43 without him, despite playing the Tigers and White Sox. The leadoff hitters have gone 3-for-33 (hitless in the last 23 AB), with 1 walk and 10 strikeouts. I'd try David Fry there since he's been hitting and takes far more pitches than anyone else on the team.
 

Marciano490

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What’s up with this Tugboat guy - Matt Wilkinson - his numbers are nuts so far?
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Cleveland's most fun prospect might be last year's 10th round pick Matt "Tugboat" Wilkinson. In a start last week for Lo-A Lynchburg, Tugboat pitched 6 hitless innings with 15 strikeouts. He followed it up tonight with 5 more shutout innings, although it came with a *disappointing* 5 K's. Tugboat's a 6'1", 270 lb. Canadian lefty who has allowed just 8 hits in 25.2 innings this year while striking out 46. He only throws in the low 90's but has great movement on everything with a devastating slider and good changeup.
Tugboat hasn't been quite as unhittable lately, but he's still sporting a 1.02 ERA and 16 K/9 through 35.1 innings. Cleveland's most interesting prospects to me – Tugboat, Ralphy Velazquez and Jaison Chourio – are all at Lo-A Lynchburg. The latter two are really young and likely to stay there a while, but Tugboat despite only pitching only one inning after being drafted last year (in which he struck out the side), he's 21-year-old juco product and I'd expect to see him get a midseason promotion to Hi-A Lake County. I can usually get there for a game or two every year and once he's there, I'll be looking at the schedule to make a trip. The footage of him pitching for Canada in the Little League World Series is awesome – he was chubbier back then but had a dominant 16 K start. I think the ultimate hope would be for a David Wells type on the mound who isn't a David Wells type unrepentant asshole off it.

...Another Cleveland lefty farmhand who's making (or remaking?) a name for himself is Doug Nikhazy at AA. Cleveland used a 2nd round pick on Nikhazy in 2021 but he's never been more than a fringe prospect because he couldn't throw strikes. Over his first two years, he walked 152 batters in 204.1 innings. He started this season on the shelf with an oblique strain, but since being activated he's pitched 18 shutout innings with 25 strikeouts and only 5 walks. Nikhazy also throws low 90s but has always been considered more of a junkballer than Tugboat with the curve as his best pitch. The thinking was that he'd have to make it as a reliever where he could focus more on throwing strikes for an inning and his fastball might play up, but if the newfound control isn't an aberration, then it keeps the door open as a starter.
 

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Once they moved Tyler Freeman to center field and he outplayed both Laureano and Myles Straw, those two really became redundant. Will Brennan can slide over and give them a left-hander in center if necessary. Rodgriguez is a more traditional corner outfielder with power, which is something they haven't had since giving up on Oscar Gonzalez. The difference is that Gonzalez had no plate discipline but was pretty good at making contact. Rodriguez is a far more patient hitter, but the question is whether he can make enough contact to succeed at this level.

There's been sort of a grassroots ground swelling to promote Daniel Schneemann – a 27-year-old non-prospect, but also a positional Swiss Army knife who keeps hitting at AAA. That would require a 40-man roster move, so Cleveland is going to sort through the opportunities on the roster before they go there.

Also, Straw is OPS-ing .564 in AAA. He can't hit regardless of the level of play and will probably stay there until he's quietly released after the season.
 

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The last Cleveland player as young as Kyle Manzardo to double in five consecutive games was Hal Trosky. The expression on his face when he was told in the post-game interview that was 90 years ago was great. He's still looking for his first home run, but six of his nine hits are doubles. He's looked comfortable after a bad first week and his personality is starting to show up.

I wish I'd known just a little sooner so I could make the trip, but tonight Tugboat Wilkinson makes his debut for Hi-A Lake County while Steven Kwan joins the team for the start of his rehab.
 

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Steven Kwan returned from the IL tonight and immediately picked up 3 more hits. I was a little surprised to see Estevan Florial get DFA'd as the corresponding move. They didn't need to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Kwan, but they did for Angel Martinez coming off the 60-day IL at AAA. Florial only had 11 plate appearances in the second half of May, so I guess the writing was on the wall, but his power potential is still intriguing. The strikeout rate was problematic but at least he's a patient hitter, unlike Gabriel Arias who has been showing the past two years that his only use is being able to play shortstop. Johnathan Rodriguez hasn't exactly set the world on fire either and isn't likely to get at-bats now behind Will Brennan and David Fry's turns through the outfield rotation. Fry, by the way, continued his dream season with a 3-run homer tonight – now hitting .352/.485/.629.
 

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Cleveland has scored 2+ runs with 2 outs in 16 consecutive games… something that hasn't been accomplished since the 1935 Detroit Tigers.

Emmanuel Clase has lowered his ERA to 0.30 (1 ER in 30.1 IP) and last month had a stretch of 9 no-hit innings. Tonight he caught Doug Jones for 3rd place on the all-time Cleveland saves list... 10 more to reach Bob Wickman and another 10 to Cody Allen in first place.

Gavin Williams is pitching again but not well. He had his second outing in AAA tonight but neither has gone well. He's now allowed 5 runs in 3.1 innings.

In a bullpen game on Wednesday, Nick Sandlin will get his first start since his college days.
 
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Sad Sam Jones

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The AAA Columbus Clippers scored 9 runs in the first 7 innings tonight, but recently demoted Johnathan Rodriguez was suffering an 0-fer. Then in the last two innings he hit a 2-run homer, a 3-run homer and a grand slam, driving in 9 of the 14 runs they scored over the 8th & 9th innings. Brian Lavastida, who was Cleveland's backup catcher for two weeks a couple of years ago, also homered twice during the 12-run ninth inning.

Jhonkensy Noel, who had to be added to the 40-man roster 2½ years ago when he was just a 20-year-old in A-ball, because the Rule 5 draft is an archaic and unfair joke, has never been in serious consideration for a call-up. He has massive raw power, hitting 400-foot home runs with ease and would have made him enticing to other organizations, but he's struggled with contact and average ever since. The past month he's been on a tear at AAA and is now batting a more than respectable .273 with a .897 OPS. They're going to need to promote him in the near future if they ever want to get a look at him in Cleveland before he runs out of options. He and Jose Tena are prime examples of why the Rule 5 draft, which hasn't served any real purpose since the institution of minor league free agency, should be abolished. No one is stashing these guys away in the minors against their best interests. They are trying to develop kids who don't always take a beeline to the majors.
 

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Jhonkensy Noel has been on fire in AAA, he's now up to a .293 BA and .919 OPS. Jose Tena is having a strong season hitting .284 after leading off tonight's game with his 10th home run. George Valera has been hitting for the past month since getting healthy.

These have been three of my favorite prospects the past few years, but Cleveland probably needs to trade at least two of them next month. All three are in their last option year and have had no chance to show what they're capable of doing in the majors. Tena has 31 MLB at-bats across 18 games last year and neither Noel nor Valera have spent a single day in Cleveland. Valera has suffered from injury after another, Noel hasn't exactly made linear progress towards the big leagues and Tena has been stuck in the pecking order behind Arias, Rocchio and Freeman. Cleveland's constant youth movement is starting to jam them up with regards to the Rule 5 draft and wasted option years.

It's a shame that Arias still stands in the way of Tena getting opportunities when he's proven beyond any doubt that he'll never be a good MLB regular. As a right-handed bat who's completely unplayable against lefties, he'd have to be a helluva of starting caliber player against righties to fit a roster… and the more he sits on the bench, the worse his swing gets. Meanwhile, their faith in Will Brennan has already cost them Nolan Jones and Will Benson and is probably now forcing Noel and Valera out of the system... for a guy who looks like the second coming of Lonnie Chisenhall. There's no way they can give all three of these guys a fair trial to see if they're worth carrying for all of 2025. They already have Kyle Manzardo spending to much time riding the bench to get his bat going. At least with Cleveland competing for a division title this year, they might be able to use any of those three to sweeten packages for immediate roster improvements.
 

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Cleveland has had two 3-game losing streaks this season. Following the first one, they won 12 of their next 13 games. Since their latest one, they have won four straight by an average score of 7-2. This team seems to have two real strengths – a ridiculously good and deep bullpen and a short memory. They just avoid slumps.

Steven Kwan has had eight hitless games this year. He's had eleven 3-hit games.

Gavin Williams, who has missed the entire season thus far to what was considered minor elbow discomfort, pitched 5 innings in AA on Friday, allowing just one run on 4 hits and struck out 4. Most importantly, he walked 0. His control had been what's missing. They haven't announced his next outing, but he's close to making his season debut.

Speaking of AA… CJ Kayfus entered 2024 as a fringe prospect. A 3rd round pick last summer as a 21-year-old college product. Between Hi-A and AA this season, he's hit .351/.453/.615 with 11 home runs. He's actually hit better this past month since moving up to AA and playing in a pitcher's park. Unfortunately, Cleveland really isn't lacking in lefty 1B/corner outfielders. Add him to the pile of Jose Tena, Jhonkensy Noel and George Valera as trade commodities for next month. Speaking of Tena… Gabriel Arias probably won't be absent long, but it's curious that with him stepping away for a family emergency the team chose to give Angel Martinez his MLB debut rather than give that opportunity to Tena in his last option year. It's been a long time, but Cleveland is finally going to need to add starting pitching from outside the organization. There are no uber prospects in the AAA rotation. Joey Cantillo has returned from injury to make four starts now, and while the results are good (2.31 ERA) he's still doing it without throwing strikes (10 walks in 11.2 innings)… it's been the story of his career.

Jose Ramirez and Josh Naylor are #2 & #3 respectively in the AL in RBI. Andres Gimenez and Tyler Freeman are tied with Ryan Jeffers for the league lead in getting hit by pitches… that's nothing new for Gimenez who gets hit an awful lot considering he's not a Ty France type who wears an oversized arm guard and sticks it in the strike zone. The book has always been to bust Gimenez inside and it always makes me nervous how often he takes a direct hit.

Jose's next home run ties him for 3rd most in Cleveland history with Manny Ramirez.
 

Sad Sam Jones

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Fun with 1st Home Runs…

Jhonkensey Noel is only the 4th player in Cleveland history to homer in his first big league at-bat. I was able to name all four – Noel, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jay Bell and Earl Averill – I just assumed there were several others. That means they went over 57 years between the first (Averill) and second (Bell).

Averill is part of another piece of related trivia – he's one of only two members of the Hall of Fame to homer in his first at-bat. The other is not in the hall for his hitting. Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm homered in his first at-bat and then never did again in his remaining 431 at-bats. He was a .088 lifetime hitter with a .246 OPS.

Kouzmanoff hit a grand slam on the first major league pitch he saw (after I watched him flirt with .400 in AA for a few months earlier that season). At the time he was only the third person to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat (Bill Duggleby in 1898 and Jeremy Hermida in 2005), and was the only to ever do it on the first pitch. Four years later Daniel Nava matched both of those feats. Duggleby was another bad hitting pitcher, but he did hit 5 more home runs in his career.
 

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Hoyt Wilhelm! Great name from the past. What a career. Broke in with Giants at age 29, pitched 21 seasons.

Polo Grounds was 258 down the left field line and 279 at the RF pole. Hoyt probably stuck his home run off one of those foul poles.
 

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The rumblings have begun that Triston McKenzie is on the verge of demotion. There's no hint he's injured, but it has been suggested that he's been a mechanical mess dating back to the elbow injury of last year. He's had excellent command throughout his career when things are going well, but it seems to be the first sign when he's going off the rails. He had diminished velocity over his first few starts of the year and struggled but regained it while he reeled off a stretch of 6 starts with a 2.10 ERA. Since then he's posted an 8.26 ERA in 7 starts and he's only been able to pitch 7.2 total innings over his last 3 starts.

During his first "full" MLB season in 2021, he had trouble throwing strikes for the first time in his pro career. That resulted in 4 weeks back in AAA where he figured things out and then returned to post a 2.96 ERA in 11 starts with only 11 walks in 67 innings before he ran out of gas in late September. When you're nothing but arms and legs it can get difficult to be consistent mechanically. He has a bobblehead giveaway coming up next Saturday but will he be with the team by the time it gets here? They could give him one more shot or go with a bulllpen game before activating Gavin Williams from the IL.
 

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After Sunday's game, Cleveland sent Triston McKenzie to AAA to work out his problems and activated Gavin Williams from the IL. Williams will make his season debut Wednesday night against the White Sox. They also signed Matthew Boyd over the weekend as he's about to start his rehab assignment following last year's Tommy John surgery, so he could essentially be another addition around the trade deadline if everything goes well.

Bo Naylor made some swing adjustments last month and has hit .318/.362/.568 over his past 15 games. Jose Ramirez caught Jim Thome for 3rd place on Cleveland's all-time extra-base hit list at 620 earlier this week… 47 to go to reach Tris Speaker and 104 to catch Earl Averill. He's only 3 home runs shy of Albert Belle for 2nd all-time.