On the great doomsday clock of the offseason, we’re still over 50 minutes to midnight. The night is still very young; Ethan Hawke has all night to run around and find the cure for vampirism and trick Sam Neill into biting him. What I’m saying is — the Guards have time. And for the first time in a few offseasons, I think there is a legitimate chance we see them do something with it.
There are no superstars near the end of their contracts who must be traded this year (as much as any player “must” be traded to squeeze a roster into a confined budget) and most of the team that made it to the brink of winning the ALDS last season is returning in 2023 with playoff experience on their side. The payroll is basically nothing; they have one glaring hole at catcher and everything else could be better but is hardly a disaster. There has not been a time so obvious for Cleveland to strike since the 2016-17 offseason when they signed Edwin Encarnación on a budget deal. The team is obviously good, the building blocks are there, and they have the firepower to get something done.
It doesn’t have to be a free-agent signing. I’ll even take that one step further — I don’t think it will be a free-agent signing. The moves they made ahead of the 40-man roster deadline, however, seem to set them up to make some trades. They didn’t shy away from middle infielders with their final 40-man decisions, the position they are the deepest throughout the system, but instead added to it with Juan Brito from the Rockies.
Here’s a look at the Guardians’ 40-man roster as it stands now following yesterday’s moves (service time and options data via Roster Resource).
Guardians 40-man roster
|Enyel De Los Santos||RP||27||0||2.015|
By my count, that’s seven infielders who have less than a year of service time: Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias, Jhonkensey Noel, Angel Martinez, Jose Tena, Brayan Rocchio, and the newcomer Juan Brito. If you want to throw Richie Palacios in there, that’s eight. So at most that’s 20% of the roster that plays the same handful of positions and will begin using up options without guaranteed playing time. Friends, that’s a recipe for a trade.
I won’t pretend like I have any idea what player the Guardians are targeting or who other teams could want — the Brito trade should be proof we actually have no idea, no matter how much we like to speculate. A catcher seems obvious, and Sean Murphy still exists, but Chris Antonetti and crew have been their usual tight-lipped selves about their plans.
While we don’t know all the specifics, what we do know about the Guardians is that they have their plan and they’re sticking to it.
If you closed your eyes and imagined a perfect prospect that would fit right into the 2022 Guardians, Brito would be it. A 5-foot-11 switch-hitting middle infielder who walked more than he struck out in 2022, Brito’s scouting reports indicate a high hit tool without much power (though it could still develop). The one thing he’s missing from the typical Guardians formula is speed, but if Josh Naylor can make it work, so can Brito. He also stole 17 bases in 107 games, so without being able to see every single time he ran first-to-third, I’d be willing to bet he’s an aggressive base runner even without blazing speed.
Brito also earns the Guardians front office stamp of approval by being younger than his peers at basically every level — which at this point seems to be the biggest overriding factor in how the Guardians evaluate their prospects. He just turned 21 in September and slashed .285/.407/.470 in Single-A, where he was roughly a year younger than the league average (thanks to Purple Row for the math on that one). It’s there in the California League that he boosted his walk rate to 15.7%, dropped his strikeout rate to 14.3%, and even hit a career-high 11 home runs.
The more you sit and think about the Nolan Jones swap for Brito, the more it seems like a slam dunk for the Guardians. Jones is the opposite of what the Guardians are looking for in players right now, but he has a shot to succeed in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field. Meanwhile, the Guardians get another tailor-made infielder to throw onto the pile and see if one of them works out.
Brito fits into their scheme flawlessly, maybe even more than the guys who have been in the system for years. If we’re talking about players who don’t quite fit and might be tradable, I think Jose Tena tops the list. He’s got the sneaky power that other teams (hello, A’s) might like, but doesn’t make elite contact. Until the Guardians can prove that their methodology of grabbing all the contact they can find results in a World Series and other teams catch on, they can still dangle power out there for an inflated return.
One of the newest 40-man adds, Angel Martinez, is much more in line with an ideal Guardians prospect — he slashed .244/.356/.451 with an 11.7% walk rate as a 20-year-old in Double-A. Rocchio? How about a 21-year-old earning a promotion to Triple-A after slashing .265/.349/.432 in Double-A? I bet he’s not nearly interesting to other teams as he is to the Guardians.
Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman, two players that saw the briefest of time in the majors this season, could even be trade fodder if the right team brings the right player in return. Most of that depends on what is done with Amed Rosario. Surely he can’t be the shortstop forever while all these kids are approaching, but there’s also no guarantee any of them will be ready in 2023. My position has always been to let him ride out his team control if no one else is willing to pony up, but that could change if his offense dips below average and someone else looks ready.
All of this is to say that the Guardians have done such a solid job at bubbling up similar prospects at the same time that they can trade three or four of them and still make a formidable infield for the next six years. Now we just need to see what those trades actually look like.