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A young Guardians infield will look for growth in 2022

Now if only they would extend their third baseman

Cleveland Guardians Photo Day Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Our position preview series rolls on from a disappointing Guardians outfield, to a confusing bullpen, and now onto an infield that is probably going to finish the season a lot different than it starts.

For now, the crew is expected to look something like this:

  • C: Austin Hedges
  • 1B: Bobby Bradley
  • 2B: Yu Chang
  • SS: Andres Gimenez
  • 3B: José Ramírez

If you’re confused about that second base and shortstop combination — so was I. But MLB.com’s Mandy Bell indicated that the Guardians are rolling with Amed Rosario as an outfielder, which leaves Gimenez as the everyday shortstop and gives Chang another shot at sticking somewhere in the infield. Based on the prospects behind them, it could be their last chances in Cleveland.

Gimenez likely has a longer leash entering his age-23 season as a key piece of last year’s Francisco Lindor trade, but his first year in Cleveland was a thundering dud. He started 68 games in Cleveland between shortstop and second base, slashing .218/.282/.351 and ultimately being sent down to work on basically everything. ZiPS and Steamer both project him to be below-average, offensively, but a solid contributor with his defense. The former has him at a 97 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR and the latter has 93 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR.

Chang has played off and on in Cleveland for three years now, holding a career 76 wRC+ in 127 games. The bulk of his playing time came last year, where he slashed a meager .228/.267/.426, mostly at first base or filling in for José Ramírez at third as needed. The one plus from his 2021 campaign is that the power he flashed in the minors (24 home runs in Triple-A in 2017) started to shine through the clouds. He slugged .426 and hit a career-high nine home runs.

The Guardians will start the season with Bobby Bradley at first base and he only has one thing to prove: Can he hit the dang baseball? The contact he makes is incredibly hard — it led to 16 home runs and a .445 slugging percentage last year — but there just isn’t enough of it. After a short, disappointing rookie campaign, Bradley still struck out 35.5% of the time in 279 plate appearances last season. There is still hope for him in 2022, however.

Despite his swing-and-miss issues, Bradley still finished 2021 with a wRC+ of 99, thanks to the big home runs and 9% walk rate. In fact, he had just as many walks as he did singles (25). He is the Three True Outcome (home runs, walks, and strikeouts) in its purest form. Nothing about his power game showed it was a mirage and he still managed to barrel the ball 16.8% of the time.

If Bradley can figure out how to hit cutters and curveballs — on which he whiffed 54.3% and 54.2% of the time, respectively — I really think he has a chance to be better than most people think. Even if he can’t, he’s a dead-on-average hitter with one particular skill and will probably be a placeholder until Josh Naylor comes off the injured list.

A surprisingly unextended José Ramírez will, of course, anchor the infield at third base. There’s nothing left to really say about the GOAT, the artist formerly known as The Angry Hamster. He is a superstar and one of the best third basemen in baseball, if not the absolute best. Not bad for a utility player.

Last year, when he finished with a .266/.355/.538 slash and 137 wRC+, was a pretty down year for José. A pedestrian 6.3 fWAR was earned and a mere 36 home runs left ballparks. He was only sixth in MVP voting? Was he sleepwalking? Now I can see why the Guardians didn’t want to pay him.

Joking aside, one of the most encouraging things about Ramírez’s season is that he got back to his Michael Brantley-esque roots of elite patience at the plate. He dropped his strikeout rate back down to 13.7% from his whiff-heavy 2020 season and walked 11.3% of the time. He did all this while also falling three home runs shy of his career-high and improving his hard-hit rate from the season prior. He hits the pitches he wants, when he wants, where he wants.

Ramírez is elite as they come against four-seamers, and last year he seemed dialed in to changeups as well. According to Baseball Savant’s run value, which measures the expected run value before and after each pitch is thrown, he was elite against both. He finished with a hard-hit rate of 48.4% against four-seamers, and 34.3% against changeups and he did not have a negative run value against any individual pitch. At worst, he came out even facing splitters, which he saw just 58 times anyway.

Both ZiPS and Steamer see Ramírez turning in 5.9 fWAR seasons — the former has him with a bit more power and a 142 wRC+, while the latter has him at a 138 wRC+ with a slightly higher walk rate (12% for Steamer, 11.8% for ZiPS) and more home runs (35 for Steamer, 32 for ZiPS).

Rounding out the infield will be the defensive wizard and offensive black hole himself, Austin Hedges. There is no sugarcoating this here — he is going to be bad offensively. Every at-bat is going to be an exercise in pain. You will likely never see Hedges’ contributions with your eyes, you just have to trust that he is doing an excellent job handling the pitching staff, framing pitches, and generally being great behind the plate.

Hedges is no longer the far-and-away best defensive catcher like he was in 2019, a year before the Guardians acquired him for Mike Clevinger, but he is still one of the best. Back then, he led the league with 28.4 fielding runs above average, Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing stat that measures catcher defense. The next closest was Buster Posey at 16.5 and Roberto Pérez at 16.2. Last year, however, he fell to seventh in baseball with 7.5 FRAA, trailing the league-leading J.T. Realmuto’s 14.8 FRAA.

The Guardians and their pitchers had nothing but rave reviews for Hedges’ game-management skills, though, and it’s clear after every game that he knows what the hell he is talking about. With enough offensive threats around him, his projected 60 wRC+ from ZiPS might not be as bad. The question will be if those threats actually exist.

If the Guardians do decide that more offense is needed from the catching position, they may shift to rookie Bryan Lavastida. The 23-year-old former third baseman is slated to make the Opening Day roster following an injury to backup catcher — and Guardians’ biggest offseason splash — Luke Maile. Lavastida showed patience at every level of the minors, culminating in a brief Triple-A stint last season. He played just three games with the Columbus Clippers, though, and probably won’t see much playing time in Cleveland quite yet if the Guardians can avoid it.

All in all, the Guardians will start the season with an extremely young infield looking to build and grow. Backups Ernie Clement and Owen Miller will probably be mixed in somewhere as the Guardians try and assess their future with the team. If things don’t pan out with any of them, a wave of infield prospects is cresting just off the shore in the form of Gabriel Arias, Brayan Rocchio, and Tyler Freeman.