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Roster decisions loom for the Guardians

The Guardians are young and only getting batter, meaning a lot of tough decisions are coming

Cleveland Guardians v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cleveland Guardians roster is nothing if not flexible. As one of the youngest teams in the league, they have the ability to option essentially anyone not nailed down.

Only José Ramírez, Austin Hedges, Luke Maile, and Oscar Mercado are among the position players who cannot be sent down to Triple-A without first going through waivers. On the pitching side, only Bryan Shaw, Anthony Gose, and Enyel De Los Santos are out of option years.

This roster flexibility is a plus, and it’s going to be tested sooner rather than later.

On top of MLB’s long-awaited 13-pitcher limit on rosters, the Guardians are preparing for the return of Franmi Reyes and Aaron Civale from the injured list. The team as it is constructed now is one that has taken the league by storm, with a bunch of 20-somethings earning six-straight series wins, including taking two of three from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend. They’re fun, they’re full of leaders, and “quit” doesn’t seem to be in their dictionary at the moment. With José Ramírez and his herd of young teammates, they sit at 34-28, just a game behind the Twins — a team they play eight times over the next 11 days.

They’ve done most of that without Reyes and Civale, so what do they do now that they’re coming back? And beyond that, what do they do when even more young players are ready to contribute?

Fitting Reyes back in is easy on paper — he’s a DH. Sure, he can play in the outfield, but so could I if the Guardians paid me (seriously, I’ll do it for the league minimum, just call). But nobody wants that. That means the Guardians can send just about anybody down, and most likely it’ll be Richie Palacios. Despite the strides that he’s made as a pinch-hitter — including a go-ahead hit on Sunday — he seems destined to get more playing time in Triple-A, according to Terry Francona via Mandy Bell:

[...] it makes the team’s decision about whom to send down when Franmil Reyes is activated on Tuesday even more difficult, though Francona has been clear he thinks Palacios can get more consistent playing time in Triple-A, which he thinks is important.

Palacios has only started a handful of games this season and only twice in the outfield since June 4. If he’s a future piece that might not quite be ready, it makes sense to get him more Triple-A seasoning instead of forcing a decision on, say, Oscar Mercado. Although, with a 68 wRC+ in 119 plate appearances, Mercado seems to be making that decision for them — even if they want to delay it as long as possible.

The pitcher limit, which is supposed to be implemented today, won’t affect the Guardians right away. As of this writing, they have 13 pitchers on the roster. But that will likely change between now and their series against the Twins on Tuesday when Aaron Civale is expected to make his first start since his tight glutes sidelined him on May 22.

Civale wasn’t particularly good prior to the injury, with a 7.84 ERA in seven starts and every Baseball Savant measurement pointing to something being wrong under the hood. Despite great fastball and curveball spin rates ranking in the 94th percentile, Civale’s xwOBA, xERA, and xBA all ranked in the 17th percentile. If the expected stats scare you, those are a fancy way of saying he’s been real bad. It’s an unfortunate, but real, trend for Civale as he’s struggled to find a pitch mix that really works for him since showing a lot of promise as a rookie in 2019.

Still, he’s coming back, and it will require a pitching move. The Guardians likely already made it by optioning Konnor Pilkington and recalling Anthony Castro ahead of Sunday’s win against the Dodgers. I have to imagine the move is to option Castro back down when Civale is activated. From there, Civale will be the team’s No. 5 starter and hopefully, a month-long rest has helped him work out some of the kinks.

Looking a little further down the road, the Guardians are going to have some real, franchise-altering roster decisions to make. Which middle infielder do they bet big on? Which outfielder(s) do they trust have actually made the leap to being a solid major-leaguer? There are questions that could set them back for years if they get them wrong.

Oscar Gonzalez looked like a star when he first came up on May 26, but teams have already started to attack his weaknesses. He hit his first home run yesterday, though the dreaded strikeout totals are starting to pile up. Steven Kwan still maintains an elite whiff rate, but his power is nonexistent. Myles Straw still plays excellent defense, but can’t seem to hit this year. So what, then, happens if Palacios keeps knocking on the door at Triple-A, or Nolan Jones and Will Brennan keep maintaining wOBAs around .400 in Columbus, or Will Benson finally lives up to being the No. 14 pick in the 2016 draft (even if it’s just as a platoon option against righties)?

You see where I’m going here — there are a lot of potential outfield configurations, and betting on the wrong one could be disastrous in the long run. The good news is the Guardians have been pretty good at making these judgments lately.

The middle of the infield might not be as clogged as you’d think, but a crucial decision on Amed Rosario’s future will be needed at some point. The 26-year-old has started the majority of his games at shortstop this season (too many, some might say), but anyone reading this far into a roster article probably already knows how loaded with talent the Guardians are in the middle of their infield. The team seemed to like Gabriel Arias in his limited time, and he recently began rehabbing in Arizona so he should be back in Columbus soon. A broken hand suffered on May 2 cut short his Triple-A development, but he looks every bit the part of a future shortstop.

Injury concerns have also plagued Tyler Freeman’s budding career, but he’s healthy and heating up while playing a fine second base. If he’s not trade bait himself at the deadline, he could factor into how willing the Guardians are to trade Amed Rosario for another major-leaguer.

Overall, we’re in prime rosterbation season when discussing Cleveland baseball, and we’re not even in trade deadline rumor season yet. Yet.