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A deep dive into Cleveland’s upcoming 40-man roster crunch

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Cleveland must protect Rule 5-eligible prospects by Friday. How will that affect the club?

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

If you’ve been listening to the Around the Corner podcast for the past year, you’ve probably heard me mention the 40-man roster crunch that is on the way. Well, it’s almost here, so let’s start with the basics.

What is it?

Every year, Cleveland must protect some players from the Rule 5 Draft (where other teams can “draft” qualified prospects from Cleveland’s system and give them a chance at the major leagues.) Nov. 19 is the deadline for Cleveland to protect those draft-eligible players by adding them to its 40-man roster.

Last year, Cleveland protected top prospects Nolan Jones and Gabriel Arias plus Ernie Clement, Eli Morgan, and Carlos Vargas to prevent them from being selected by other teams. They left several other players exposed to the draft, and two of them (Ka’ai Tom and Luis Oviedo) were taken. Tom and Oviedo stayed at the MLB level all season, so they are now gone from the Cleveland system for good.

Why is this year different?

What makes the 2021 roster crunch so important is the vast number of high-caliber players who are Rule 5 Draft eligible for the first time. Cleveland has been loading up its system with top prospects, both through its draft and international signings, and the massive 2017 international class will be Rule 5 eligible. That includes top prospects like George Valera, Brayan Rocchio, José Tena, Jhonkensy Noel, Aaron Bracho, etc. There also is a timing issue with several players who weren’t protected in previous Rule 5 drafts, who have reached the upper levels of the minor leagues and now could be taken by other teams after developing as players.

In my opinion, 2021 will have the most prospects Cleveland has ever protected from the Rule 5 Draft.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that as of right now, Cleveland has 36 spots taken up on its current 40-man roster. Space was made recently when relievers Nick Wittgren, Cam Hill, and Francisco Perez were outrighted (Perez, who debuted in 2021, was immediately swooped up by the Washington Nationals). Roberto Pérez also had his option declined, but his spot on the roster was replaced by Josh Naylor, who had been on the 60-day IL.

But that’s not even close to enough room.

Current top 10 prospects George Valera, Tyler Freeman, and Brayan Rocchio, who all played as far as Double-A in 2021, absolutely must be protected. Ok, that’s 39.

Tough decisions

José Tena and Jhonkensy Noel also were part of that 2017 international class and they had breakout 2021 seasons. They didn’t play higher than High-A, but they have the skills that could allow a small market team to take a shot on them. Anthony Santander and Luis Oviedo hadn’t played Double-A when they were taken and kept by other clubs in recent Rule 5 drafts.

Then you have college players who haven’t played a ton in Cleveland’s system due to injuries but have impressed tremendously, like Cody Morris, who throws 99 mph and was sensational in 2021. The same can be said for Richard Palacios, who returned from a two-year layoff to be one of Cleveland’s most consistent minor league hitters in 2021 and is currently tearing up the Arizona Fall League. Outfielder Steven Kwan also had a breakout campaign in 2021, walking more than he struck out and flashing some pop with his bat as a massive sleeper prospect candidate. Catcher Bryan Lavastida also had a breakout 2021 season, slashing .289/.380/.456 across three levels. All four players saw time at Triple-A and could be selected in the Rule 5 Draft.

Don’t forget Konnor Pilkington, who was acquired as part of the Cesar Hernandez trade with Chicago at this year’s trade deadline. In eight games for Akron (seven starts), he sported a 2.33 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 18 walks in 38.2 innings. Cleveland would look pretty dumb if someone takes Pilkington in the Rule 5 draft, which would mean the club basically gave away Hernandez for free.

Then there are players who were Rule 5 eligible in the past and were not protected but could be options this year. Most notable is Oscar González, who led all Cleveland minor leaguers with 31 home runs across Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. González has been Rule 5 eligible for two years but wasn’t taken because he wasn’t close enough to MLB. That’s no longer the case. Former 2016 first-round pick Will Benson also was left exposed in last year’s draft, but he continues to improve, sporting a 131 wRC+ at Double-A this year, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A, although he struggled following his promotion.

There also are former top prospects who either struggled in 2021 (Aaron Bracho) or were injured (Joey Cantillo) who also could be left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft.

How to create space?

To create space for the next wave of young players, Cleveland is going to have to decide which players on its current 40-man roster to keep, and which players to release. There are clear no-brainers on the roster to keep, but there are several pitchers and position players on the current roster that the team will have to decide if they’re worth risking some of the next generation of talent. It’s a difficult balance because Cleveland has to have a valid 26-man MLB roster, so it can’t just keep a ton of young prospects and risk the upcoming 2022 season with players who aren’t ready to contribute.

The players most at risk, in my opinion, are the following:

LHP Alex Young was acquired when Cleveland claimed him from Arizona in July. Young was Arizona’s second-round pick in 2015 and had been a top prospect. He had a 7.84 ERA in 10.1 innings with Cleveland, then a 5.00 ERA in eight bullpen appearances for Triple-A Columbus.

LHP Kyle Nelson was elite in the minor leagues, but the success hasn’t translated at the MLB level. He had a cup of coffee in 2020, allowing four earned runs in 0.2 innings but didn’t settle down in 2021 either, sporting a 9.31 ERA in 10 appearances spanning 9.2 MLB innings. He didn’t fix his issues in Triple-A either, with a 6.66 ERA spanning 25 appearances in Columbus.

LHP Scott Moss was added to the 40-man roster after being acquired from the Reds in 2019 and having a sensational season, but after entering the 2021 season as a rotation depth option, he was horrific when he wasn’t injured, going 1-5 with a 7.08 ERA in nine games spanning 20.1 innings. What’s interesting is he posted career-high strikeout rate this year, but his walk rate almost doubled.

LHP Logan S. Allen was a key piece in the Trevor Bauer trade but is still trying to find his groove in Cleveland. He started the 2021 season in the starting rotation but was demoted after struggling tremendously. He was even worse in Triple-A. He showed occasional flashes, like his 6.0 inning, one-run start against Boston in August, but how patient will Cleveland be with him when it already seemingly has a starting rotation after the emergency of Cal Quantrill?

LHP Sam Hentges is another big southpaw who throws in the upper 90s, but he hasn’t translated it to the MLB level yet. Hentges had 12 starts in 2021, but I don’t think that’s where his future lies. With his velocity and nasty curveball, his future is in the bullpen. It just depends if Cleveland sees a future with him after he struggled with his control, sporting an ugly 1.78 WHIP and 6.68 ERA in 68.2 big league innings this past season.

LHP Anthony Gose is one of the best stories in baseball, working his way back to MLB as a pitcher at 31 years old after failing as a position player. Gose only has 6.1 innings with Cleveland, but he was impressive, touching 99 mph and sporting a 1.35 ERA in those innings. Personally, I think Gose is safe.

RHP Carlos Vargas has always thrown heat, which was one of the reasons he was added to the 40-man roster in 2020, but then he had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2021 season. Vargas is all potential at this point, but the 22-year-old has never even pitched at the full-season level yet.

RHP J.C. Mejia was added to the 40-man roster in 2018 and he finally made his MLB debut this past season. Mejia struggled with consistency and was given 11 starts with the club, sporting an 8.25 ERA. Of note, this was also the first season he ever pitched higher than High-A. How patient will the team be with his development?

RHP Justin Garza was not on anyone’s prospect radar entering the 2021 season, but he was lights out at Triple-A and earned a promotion, where he sported a 4.71 ERA across 21 appearances with Cleveland. That 4.71 ERA might seem high, but it’s significantly better than most everyone listed above him on this list.

INF Yu Chang had his third season making appearances with Cleveland in 2021, and this was his first time with a positive WAR (0.4). He also posted a career-high wRC+ of 85 and showed flashes of potential in the final months of the season once he settled in. Will Cleveland continue to give Chang time to develop at the MLB level is the question?

INF Ernie Clement slashed .231/.285/.339 in his first stint of MLB ball this past season, spanning 40 games in Cleveland. Clement can play almost any position well and is still just 25 years old. He’s probably safe.

OF Daniel Johnson spent most of 2021 in Triple-A, where his batting average of .222 wasn’t any better than it was at the MLB level (.221). Johnson also maintained an ugly 33.3% strikeout rate at Triple-A, shockingly the same as his MLB level as well. It’s frustrating because he was so much better at Triple-A in 2019. What happened? Johnson is almost certainly going to be a roster casualty.

OF Oscar Mercado looked like he made it at the MLB level after a dazzling debut in 2019, even batting second in Cleveland’s lineup between Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, but it’s been a steady downward spiral ever since. Mercado was the definitely of a sophomore slump in 2020, and while he improved in 2021, managing 0.6 WAR in 72 games, his roster spot is not guaranteed.

OF Harold Ramirez was a welcome addition to Cleveland’s roster during the early offensive slumps of 2021, but he struggled down the stretch, finishing with a 90 wRC+ and 0.0 WAR due to his defensive liabilities in the outfield. Will Cleveland keep a spot for the 27-year-old?

OF Bradley Zimmer had his best season with Cleveland since his 2017 debut, sporting 1.1 WAR and a career-high 89 wRC+. While he sported a solid 8.6% walk rate, he also struck out an unsustainable 35.5% of the time. Zimmer continues to show flashes of his potential, but has Myles Straw made him expendable?

Conclusion

As tough as the upcoming Rule 5 deadline will be, don’t forget that every other club has to make decisions to protect their own draft-eligible players. Cleveland isn’t the only team experiencing a crunch. Clubs like the Twins, Yankees, and others are scrambling to make space on their rosters as well.

I didn’t even touch on every player Cleveland could lose. There are other interesting Rule-5 eligible players like José Fermin, Adam Scott, Andres Melendez, Victor Nova, Alexfri Planez, Trenton Brooks, Marcos González, and Johnathon Rodriguez, but Cleveland can’t protect everyone.

What tough decisions would you make, given the club’s current situation?