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Guardians’ biggest roster questions ahead of Opening Day

Cleveland seems set on looking inward for the answers

Cleveland Indians v Texas Rangers Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

With two weeks until Opening Day, the Cleveland Guardians appear to have no plans to add to their paltry payroll, barring a last-minute trade or free agent signing. Their roster is littered with question marks, but the organization seems convinced that the answers lie within.

Looking closely at the biggest roster questions facing the Guardians, there seem to be no easy answers.

1. Are the Guardians going to continue to pretend that Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado are viable corner outfielders?

With Myles Straw’s name written in ink at the center-field spot for the foreseeable future, all eyes are on the corner outfield spots. There was a thought that Cleveland might add at least one corner outfielder via free agency or a trade this offseason, but the opportunity to waste more plate appearances on Bradley Zimmer and Oscar Mercado was evidently too good to pass up.

Zimmer is coming off the best season of his career offensively, but not even a .347 BABIP could net him a better slash line than .227/.325/.344 and 89 wRC+. He has amassed 858 plate appearances over five seasons in Cleveland, and consistent production at the plate has eluded him at every opportunity. Why he has a roster spot is a complete mystery to me.

Mercado has been even less productive than Zimmer. After a hot start to his big league career in 2019, which saw him slash .291/.340/.467 and post 112 wRC+ over his first 270 plate appearances, the 27-year-old has declined significantly. Over his last 543 plate appearances with the Guardians, Mercado has slashed .215/.275/.352 and produced 68 wRC+.

In spite of their struggles, both Zimmer and Mercado seem likely to be Opening Day starters. Manager Terry Francona has talked about Amed Rosario bouncing between shortstop and left field. Josh Naylor is working his way back from multiple fractures in his right leg, but he’ll certainly be in the conversation in right field if he doesn’t end up at first base.

Steven Kwan, who was promoted to Triple-A last season and proceeded to slash .311/.398/.903 in 103 at-bats with the Clippers, deserves consideration. Oscar Gonzalez slugged 18 home runs and posted a .503 slugging percentage in Columbus last year, making him a name to watch.

2. Is Bobby Bradley the answer at first base?

The Guardians need more offensive production at first base, plain and simple. To his credit, Bobby Bradley looked much improved at the plate last year, two years removed from a less than impressive big league debut in 2019. But his 99 wRC+ still left much to be desired. If he can make contact more consistently, he may finally tap into his potential at the plate.

If not Bradley, the aforementioned Naylor is likely to get a look. But he has only played 16 games at first base in the big leagues and it’s not like the Guardians have an embarrassment of riches at the corner outfield positions. Naylor also still needs to mature offensively.

Yu Chang is another option. He seemed to unlock something at the plate late last year, slugging seven home runs, slashing .280/.325/.579, and posting 141 wRC+ in 114 plate appearances over the final two months of the season. That clearly earned him a bit of grace but it’s unclear whether the organization sees as a viable everyday first baseman.

I should probably also at least mention Owen Miller. The versatile infielder played 18 games at first base for Cleveland last season but struggled mightily to figure out big-league pitching.

3. Can Cleveland find any friends for Emmanuel Clase?

Emmanuel Clase was one of the best relievers in all of baseball last season, but he needs help. Who exactly will be keeping him company in the bullpen is anyone’s guess.

From last season’s bullpen, Bryan Shaw and Blake Parker are unemployed and Nick Wittgren signed with St. Louis. James Karinchak was exiled to Triple-A Columbus in August of last year to figure out how to pitch effectively without the benefit of a foreign substance. He is one of only six actual relievers on the Guardians’ 40-man roster at the moment, along with Clase, Trevor Stephan, Nick Sandlin, Anthony Gose, and Sam Hentges.

You can probably pencil in Stephan, Gose, and Sandlin for bullpen spots, though the latter must bounce back from an elbow injury that ended his rookie season prematurely. Hentges had a miserable debut season last year, making 30 appearances and 12 starts for the Guardians to earn himself a 6.68 ERA and 4.48 FIP by season’s end.

Signing a veteran reliever or two — preferably not named Bryan Shaw — would do wonders for this bullpen, but that would also require the club to free up spots on the 40-man roster, which was stocked with young talent this offseason in anticipation of a Rule 5 Draft that never happened.

4. How will the Guardians’ game of musical chairs at the middle infield spots play out?

The loss of Francisco Lindor has led to an identity crisis at shortstop for the club, though Amed Rosario seized control of the position with a red hot second half of the season last year. After the All-Star break, he slashed .309/.339/.457 and produced 116 wRC+. But his defense was hardly Lindor-esque, finishing the season 22nd among all qualified shortstops in outs above average.

The problem for Rosario, who is under contract for 2022 and 2023, is that the Guardians have been stockpiling shortstops in the minor leagues. Tyler Freeman, Gabriel Arias, and Brayan Rocchio are all charting a path toward Cleveland, and all of them would seem to have a higher ceiling than Rosario. Someone is getting traded, it’s only a matter of who and when.

I expect Rosario and Andrés Giménez to be the Guardian’s Opening Day starting shortstop and starting second baseman, respectively. Giménez was the starting shortstop at the start of the season last year, but a dismal performance at the plate earned him a trip to Triple-A Columbus. He eventually earned a return trip to Cleveland, where he saw the bulk of his time at second base after Rosario’s emergence at shortstop. As one of the key pieces of the Lindor trade, I can’t imagine Cleveland’s front office is going to give up on Giménez any time soon.

Owen Miller and Ernie Clement will also be in the mix at second base.