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Guardians spring training battles: Infield/outfield bench roles

You don’t win a championship without depth

ALDS Game 3 - New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Guardians fans will have a fun spring training watching young players engage in an intense competition to earn the three bench roles available on Cleveland’s 2023 Opening Day roster.

The Guardians’ starting nine players seem pretty set in stone. In whatever lineup order Tito prefers, Mike Zunino (if healthy), Josh Naylor, Josh Bell, Andrés Giménez, José Ramírez, Amed Rosario, Steven Kwan, Myles Straw, and Oscar Gonzalez seem set to receive the lion’s share of playing time in the daily lineup to begin the year.

However, there are several players in camp competing for the roles of backup infielder and outfielder, so let’s take a look and see who seems most likely to break camp headed to Seattle for the season opener.

A word about handedness: The Guardians starting nine includes two switch hitters, four right-handed hitters, and three left-handed hitters so it would seem that there is room for potentially two left-handed hitters on the bench, especially to pair with Myles Straw and Oscar Gonzalez in the outfield. However, it’s also worth noting that if Bo Naylor or Meibrys Viloria make the roster, either would then provide a lefty hitter at the backup catcher position to be used in late-game pinch-hit situations as needed.

Gabriel Arias, 23, IF, RHH

Notes: Played some left field in the minors. 2023 Projections: Steamer 101 wRC+, ZiPS 93 wRC+.

Analysis: I covered Arias in a recent post, so check it out to see some reasons to hope for what he might be able to do. He had a good run to end the season at the plate and got a couple of hits off of Luis Severino in the playoffs. Though he looked sloppy at short and second base in the majors, he’s been an excellent defender in the minors.

Covering the Corner commenter DelGua reminded me that Arias has not performed well in the Puerto Rican winter league, which certainly isn’t a point in his favor, but it’s also difficult to know how much to read into winter league stats. Perhaps the greatest worry might be that he wasn’t particularly focused or engaged in Puerto Rico, and I think he will need to come into Goodyear laser-focused on winning a roster spot.

The Guardians had Arias play left field and first base a combined 17 times in Columbus down the stretch in 2022, and then had him fill in at first base in the majors from the end of September onwards. I think he is the most likely of these options to get the first shot at a major league roster spot because he has a lot of positional versatility, as well as a bat that certainly seems worth a look at the majors.

If you told me that Arias isn’t going to be one of the Guardians' bench players come the end of March, I would assume he has an injury or has been traded.

Tyler Freeman, 23, IF, RHH

Notes: Will turn 24 years old during the season. 2023 Projections - Steamer 106 wRC+, ZiPS 97 wRC+.

Analysis: Tyler Freeman’s first month in the big leagues he put up a 90 wRC+ with a .240/.393/.293 and a 10.6/6.4% K/BB%.

Let me offer some caveats: Freeman was recovering from significant shoulder surgery in 2022. He has now had a full offseason of workouts to gain strength and get into the kind of playing condition he ideally wanted to be in for 2022. His ability to make contact and avoid strikeouts plays well from a bench role. With that said, I do fear that the slash line he put up in his first taste of the big leagues could be indicative of the kind of hitter he will be when it’s all said and done. If that turns out to be the case, he actually would still be a solid utility infielder.

In an obviously small sample size of 193 total defensive innings, by outs above average (OAA), Freeman looked good at second base (+2 OAA) and shortstop (+1 OAA), but not so good at third base (-4 OAA). You can’t read a lot into 95 third-base innings, but I don’t think his arm is especially strong so it’s probably preferable he plays second or short.

Freeman did have an OPS over .800 against left-handed pitchers in the minors, so it is possible he may offer some value as a platoon option there, but left-handed Giménez handled lefties extremely well in 2022, and Amed Rosario is a certified lefty-masher.

While Freeman and Arias both are in the 70th percentile for sprint speed on Baseball Savant, Freeman has stolen 48 bases in the minors and been caught stealing 13 times, while Arias has stolen 27 bases and been caught 15 times. So, it would seem that Freeman is the better base runner which may give him an edge if there is only one spot for a utility infielder on the roster.

Again, I lean toward the positional flexibility of Arias over Freeman’s skill set, but there’s no doubt that base running acumen, solid defense, and the ability to avoid strikeouts fit well with the roster the Guardians have assembled.

Will Brennan, 25, OF, LHH

Notes: 2023 Projections - Steamer 114 wRC+,ZiPS 96 wRC+.

Analysis: After putting up a 139 wRC+ in Akron and a 122 wRC+ in Columbus, Brennan got a late-season call-up and saw immediate playing time that continued into the playoffs, indicating the team’s confidence in his ability to handle himself in a playoff race. Brennan put up a 155 wRC+ in his brief time in Cleveland during the regular season, which was fun to see. He is another high-contact, low-strikeout-rate guy who plays solid defense and can be plugged in at any outfield position. He’s also a very entertaining interview and clearly beloved by his teammates from everything I’ve seen.

For me, the question isn’t whether Brennan should make the 2023 roster — it’s whether or not he should be starting in center field at some point, maximizing Straw’s value as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. ZiPS has some doubts, but Steamer’s 114 wRC+ projection for him has me thinking about seeing Brennan getting a look as the starting center fielder if the 60 wRC+ hitter Straw was for most of 2022 makes an unwelcome return. I certainly hope he does not, and Brennan can just be a spark plug off the bench for the Guardians.

Brennan only showed a sprint speed in the 52nd percentile in Cleveland, but he did steal 15 bases in Columbus in 2022 and was only caught once, indicating that base-stealing acumen may be a tool he can offer the Guardians for 2023.

Richie Palacios, 25, IF/OF, LHH

Notes: 2023 Projections - Steamer 102 wRC+, ZiPS 96. 65 wRC+ in 123 PA’s for Cleveland in 2023.

Analysis: Richie Palacios is an easy player to root for, with a sunny disposition and a tough-minded approach at the plate that seems to typically lead to long at-bats. Palacios was also a solid base-stealer in 2021-2022 in the minors, stealing 32 bases and only getting caught five times (63rd percentile in sprint speed). He stole two bases in Cleveland and wasn’t caught once.

Arias played three innings at second base in the majors and the rest of the time was in left. It’s doubtful if his arm is good enough for right or his glove for center, so his defensive flexibility is very limited. There’s a lot to like about Palacios’s attitude, I think he can manage a walk rate of around 10% looking at his stats in the minors and projections, and his base-stealing looks like a potential skill of value.

With all that said, even after the trade of Will Benson, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team finds a trade partner for Palacios before spring training ends due to his defensive limitations and lack of slugging ability, and limited room to maneuver on the roster. However, it may also be the case that the Benson trade indicates some level of the Guardians’ belief in Palacios as a solid backup outfielder.

David Fry, 27, 1B/3B/C, RHH

Notes: 2023 Projections - Steamer 99 wRC+, ZiPS 90 wRC+.

Analysis: David Fry is not on the 40-man so he is less likely to make his way on the roster, but the team did send him to the Arizona Fall League after he hit 17 home runs and put up a 105 wRC+ in Columbus in 2022.

Fry had a .988 OPS and .813 OPS in 2021 and 2022, respectively, against LHP. He spent time between first base, third base, and catcher in Columbus, but reports are very mixed about his defensive ability.

One additional note: the Guardians raved about the flexibility having a third catcher allowed them at the end of 2022. A player who plays first, third, and catcher and crushes lefties fits perfectly on this roster. The issue with Fry is that it doesn’t seem likely that he will be a good defender at each of these three spots, and the bat doesn’t look like a sure thing either.

I still wouldn’t be surprised to see Fry get a good look in spring training at a variety of positions.

Outside options

Roman Quinn, Switch-hitter, OF, 29 years old, George Valera, LH, OF, 22 years old, Brayan Rocchio, switch-hitter, IF, 22 years old.

Roman Quinn is in camp as a non-roster invite but one would assume he is simply depth with a career 78 wRC+ in the majors. George Valera may make an impact on the team, but likely not until later in the year given he only managed a 103 wRC+ in Columbus in 2022. Brayan Rocchio also only managed an 81 wRC+ and there are a few infielders ahead of him in line, so I’d guess he plays full-time at second base and shortstop at Columbus.

Bottom Line

My prediction is that Gabriel Arias, Will Brennan, and Tyler Freeman make the Opening Day roster for the Guardians. I think these three maximize the bench’s potential for positional flexibility and for base-stealing abilities. However, spring training should be a great time for any of the players listed above to impress the Guardians front office enough to earn a spot in the majors from the bench.