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See Yu later?

It’s getting harder to justify playing Yu Chang on this Guardians roster

Cleveland Guardians v. Kansas City Royals Photo by LG Patterson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’m on record as a Yu Chang fan. His second-half wRC+ of 129 was one of the bright spots on the entire team, and certainly enjoyable. And there are really few on the team with such an effervescent smile. Just look at it.

But, it’s really, really hard to see how Chang fits on the 2022 Cleveland Guardians. Despite Guardians Twitter’s best efforts to will it into existence, Chang has not been traded or outrighted and is on the current MLB roster. He’s currently filling the Bobby Bradley Memorial Clubhouse Ghost role, as he’s only played three games, garnering seven plate appearances without a hit while striking out five times. Some of this is down to COVID, which ruled him out from April 15 to May 13, but a lot more of it has to do with the construction of the roster.

In an offense where plate discipline, on-base percentage, and speed matter, Chang fits in as well as I would at a Jack Harlow concert. At his best, in 2021, Chang swung at 50.1% percent of the pitches he saw, the only time he’s had an OBP above .300 was in 2020 … when he accumulated just 13 plate appearances. Although his speed still rates above average, he’s two-tenths of a second slower home-to-first than Ernie Clement.

And Clement is perhaps the most important person in this story because he’s essentially taken Chang’s role while Chang was on the injured list — and he’s done it better. So far in 2022, Clement has played 20 games, splitting time between left field, second base, and third base. In that small sample, he’s already generated two outs above average on defense, which is 50% of Chang’s 2021 total in 27% of the opportunities.

It’s important to stress that we’re talking small samples with Clement, but on offense, he’s definitely more in line with the direction of the organization than Chang. Clement has 58 plate appearances in 2022 and does not have a good wRC+ (65), but is showing good discipline at least. Both his swing rate of 45.9% and a swinging strike rate of just 6.1% are better than league average, whereas Chang’s career rates are 49.1 and 12.4% (both above league average), respectively; likewise, Clement has held his strikeout rate in check at 13.8% and is walking at a rate of 6.9% (better and slightly worse than league average, respectively), whereas Chang’s career rates are 28.2 and 6.8%, respectively.

Offensive stats, though, are not where players like Clement and Chang earn their roster spots. Rather, their value comes from their versatility, and versatility has become the norm on the Cleveland roster. As mentioned, Clement has provided ample value at three positions already this season; Andrés Giménez has been the 11th most valuable fielder in MLB by Outs Above Average, with 4, splitting time between second and shortstop; Owen Miller has emerged as an offensive force and has logged time at first, second, and third base; Josh Naylor has played first base and right field; and Amed Rosario has logged innings at short and left field.

With players no longer rooted to a single position, what is the value of having a guy like Chang on the bench? For example, if a late-inning pinch runner is necessary for Naylor (who is in the seventh percentile in sprint speed), Miller could easily shift to first or Steven Kwan could easily move to right field to cover him, leaving Giménez to fill in at second or Rosario to fill in left field depending on the situation. Of course, Francona loves his guys and will find time for them somehow. But the legitimate case for Chang’s playing time is hard to find.

There is certainly a team that could use Chang’s offensive profile (particularly that of late 2021) and his defensive versatility. That team is no longer the Cleveland Guardians. I wish Yu the best, but I hope his best comes somewhere else. Cleveland needs to use any playing time he might get, or even just his roster spot, in a more productive way.