The 2022 season saw 17 rookies make their debut for the Cleveland Guardians as they went on to win their division. What prospects might make an impact on the organization in 2023, and who should you keep and eye on as the season progresses?
There are, of course, dozens of evaluators offering prospect analysis for the Guardians, from FanGraphs, to ZiPS, to Baseball Prospectus, to the Athletic, to ESPN, to MLB Pipeline, to Justin Lada and company who do excellent work at Next Year in Cleveland, to your very own Covering the Corner contributors. These lists all offer useful insights on the various names you can watch at a minor-league ballpark near you, with an MiLB TV subscription, or by checking the minor-league box scores or reading CTC’s daily minor-league wrap-up posts during the season.
For our purposes today, I’m going to highlight one player from each of the categories I’ve listed below and offer some general insights into the group listed under each heading.
The “Starting pitchers who might help in 2023” group
Overview: The Guardians have the deserved reputation of being a pitching factory and their system continues to be rich in pitching prospects, some of whom may be appearing at Progressive Field in the near future. The Big Three are the oft-injured-yet-DeGrom-compared Daniel Espino, Tanner Bibee, and Gavin Williams, but there’s plenty to like about Logan Allen — who showed up prominently on several Guardians top-10 lists after putting up a strikeout of around 11 batters per nine innings in Akron in 2022 — as well as Joey Cantillo.
I suspect we are more likely to see Cody Morris in a relief role if he can find a way to put shoulder/back pain behind him as he flashed some exciting stuff in 2022. But, there’s only one name I wanted to highlight ...
Prospect to watch: Tanner Bibee, RHP, 24, AA
I noticed in early June that Tanner Bibee was putting up Shane Bieber-like numbers at Lake County, and he continued to dominate in Akron. Finding an extra 3-4 mph on his fastball has made prospect evaluators stand up and take notice, and he accompanies that 97 mph offering with an excellent slider and changeup, and a solid curve, all thrown with pinpoint control.
If Bibee continues to develop as he did in 2022, he should be in the major league rotation at some point this season.
Other names to know
Daniel Espino, RHP, 22, AA
Gavin Williams, RHP, 23, AA
Logan Allen, LHP, 24, AA
Cody Morris, RHP, 26, MLB
Joey Cantillo, LHP, 23, AA
Konnor Pilkington, LHP, 25
Peyton Battenfield, RHP, 25
Hunter Gaddis, RHP, 24
Xzavion Curry, RHP, 24
The “Position players who might help in 2023” group
(Note: I have left Will Brennan, Gabriel Arias and Tyler Freeman off this list as players who spent enough time with the major league team in 2022 where many fans are familiar with them, though they technically retain prospect status).
Overview: Guardians fans are hoping that George Valera’s hand heals quickly after whatever additional complications he experienced during spring training after offseason hamate surgery so that he can become their messianic outfielder with the ability to hit for power and get on base. Brayan Rocchio is another talented switch-hitter with solid defensive abilities but may be ticketed for a move to second base. Juan Brito offers amazing contact and on-base ability, and Noel offers incredible power, so both have plenty to dream on. Pries opened some eyes with a great Spring Training, akin to my highlighted player ...
Prospect to watch: Angel Martinez, IF, 21, AA
As a 20-year-old switch-hitter at Double-A, Angel Martinez put up a 120 wRC+ with a 17.5/11.7 K/BB%. After some concerns with his ability to hit left-handed pitching, he even managed to put up fairly even splits in 2022 (.855/.829 OPS against RHP/LHP at Lake County and Akron, combined).
Fans who caught a glimpse of Martinez's play in spring training likely noticed a strong arm and plenty of defensive ability. He also seemed to have added some muscle in the offseason, which makes me wonder if some additional power might make him an option in a corner outfield spot, as well.
Obviously, there are a lot of players in front of Martinez right now and he’s only 21 years old, but don’t be completely surprised if he plays himself into a roster spot in September if he continues to grow and develop as a hitter. He’s already on the 40-man roster, so that’s not a reason to hold him back.
Other names to know
George Valera, OF, 22, AAA
Brayan Rocchio, IF, 22, AAA
Juan Brito, IF, 21, A+
Jhonkensy Noel, 1B/OF, 21, AAA
Micah Pries, 1B/OF, 25, AAA
The “Bo Naylor” group
Overview: The Guardians have one catching prospect of note and his name is ...
Prospect to watch: Bo Naylor, C, 22, AAA
The Guardians are incredibly thin on catching prospects (Manuel Mejias and Jose Cedeno might be some names to watch at the lower levels), so help us, O Bo Naylor-obi, you’re our only hope.
Bo Naylor had a sensational year in the minors in 2022, ending up in Columbus and hitting well there while continuing to show off great speed for a catcher. He showed off a cannon of an arm in spring training and in the World Baseball Classic before heading back to minor-league camp where the team indicated he needed to do some more work before he was ready for the bigs.
It looks to me like he’s struggling with high fastballs, which isn’t unusual for young players. If all goes well, expect Naylor to put in some good work in Columbus for 2-3 months and then come up to split time and learn from Mike Zunino at some point this summer. If everything goes to plan, Naylor comes up in July to split time with Zunino and works himself into being the full-time starter in 2024.
Other name to know
Bryan Lavastida, C, 24, MLB
The “More middle-infield prospects than you can shake a stick at” group
Overview: It’s become a meme, but it is truly incredible how many good second-base and shortstop prospects the Cleveland Guardians have. If you dive into the list below, you’ll see something to like about every player, whether it’s the defensive excellence of Jose Tena and Dayan Fries, the on-base abilities of Jake Fox and Angel Genao, or the raw tools of Nate Furman, Juan Benjamin, and Welbyn Francisco (who found himself ranked as the 13th best Guardians prospect by FanGraphs). They also have four switch-hitters in this group. But, I would like to highlight ...
Prospect to watch: Milan Tolentino, IF, 21, A+-
There’s not much you can tell from spring training games but one thing I always watch for is players who pop out from a crowd. This spring, one of those players was Milan Tolentino.
After absolutely demolishing the competition in Lynchburg with a 144 wRC+, 20-year-old Tolentino earned a promotion to Lake County where he slowed down a bit with a 97 wRC+. What I notice is a hard-nosed approach to defense where he looks to have excellent instincts and a great arm.
If Tolentino can accompany a 10-15% walk-rate with a strikeout rate closer to 20% than 30%, I suspect we will have another good middle-infield prospect on our hands by the end of 2023.
Other names to know
Jose Tena, IF, 21, AA
Dayan Fries, IF, 20, A
Jake Fox, IF, 20, A
Angel Genao, IF, 19, A
Nate Furman, IF, 21, R/A
Juan Benjamin, IF, 19, R
Welbyn Francisco, IF, 17, R
The “What a relief!” group
Overview: The Guardians always seem have some interesting relief arms in their systems. Aside from some veterans signed to minor-league deals like Philip Diehl, Touki Toussaint, Michael Kelly, Caleb Simpson, and Caleb Barager, they also have plenty of relievers with interesting upsides.
Left-hander Tim Herrin has a good shot of making the Opening Day roster. Nick Mikolajchak and Andrew Misiasek (side note: you know you’ve read too much about Guardians baseball when you can spell their names without looking) are dealing with a shoulder and elbow issue, respectively, so we’ll have to see when they begin competing in games. Players like Mason Hickman, Cade Smith, Davis Sharpe, and Tyler Thornton all have at least an outside shot to be useful arms for the major league team if need be. But, today, I’d like to highlight...
Prospect to watch: Ethan Hankins, RHP, 22, A+
This is a make-or-break season for Ethan Hankins, who was coming off Tommy John surgery and was only able to pitch one inning in the complexes in 2022.
However, Guardians Prospective reported Hankins’ activity this spring:
#Guardians 22yr old RHP prospect Ethan Hankins had his fastball up to 98.3 mph his last time out on the mound. Great to see Hankins regaining his velo coming back from TJ surgery.— Guardians Prospective (@CleGuardPro) March 12, 2023
If healthy, Hankins has a plus fastball and slider that could make him an excellent weapon out of the pen, giving him a chance to reward the team’s decision to pick him with the 35th pick in the 2018 draft.
Other names to know
Tim Herrin, LHP, 26, AAA
Nick Mikolajchak, RHP, 25, AAA
Andrew Misiasek, LHP, 25, AAA
Mason Hickman, RHP, 24, A+
Cade Smith, RHP, 23, A+
Davis Sharpe, RHP, 23, A+
Tyler Thornton, RHP, 22, A
The “When you think you have enough pitching, go get more pitching” group
Overview: There are so many fascinating pitchers listed below, you could choose to follow any one of them and have the potential of seeing a huge breakout in 2023. Guardians fans are blessed with an unending number of minor-league arms to enjoy.
Look among prospect gurus and you’ll find your fans of lefties with fun offspeed pitches Doug Nikhazy and Parker Messick, or strike-throwers Trenton Denholm and Jack Leftwich. Perhaps you like guys who sit in the mid-90s with their fastballs with upside for more in Jacob Zibin and Jake Miller, or maybe you root for underdogs like Will Dion whose motion looks like Clayton Kershaw’s but only tops out at 88 mph on his fastball. Me, I’d like to highlight ...
Prospect to watch: Justin Campbell, RHP, 21, R
Justin Campbell was the most exciting pick in the 2022 Guardians draft for me.
He’s a 6’7” right-hander who sits in the mid-90s and has shown a great changeup, a solid slider, and a good curveball, combined with plus command. This sounds exactly like the kind of pitcher the Guardians are usually able to maximize in value, helping them reach higher velocity and refining command and pitch mix.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Campbell dominating the opposition in Double-A Akron at some point in 2023.
Other names to know
Doug Nikhazy, LHP, 23, AA
Parker Messick, LHP, 22, R
Tanner Burns, RHP, 24, AA
Jacob Zibin, RHP, 18, R
Trenton Denholm, RHP, 23, A
Jack Leftwich, RHP, 24, A+
Jake Miller, RHP, 22, A
Tommy Mace, RHP, 24, A+
Will Dion, LHP, 22, A+
Javier Santos, RHP, 19, R
Jackson Humphries, LHP, 18, R
Kendeglys Virguez, RHP, 18, R
The “We can develop outfielders, too!” group
Overview: Some of the most exciting, young players in the Guardians’ system are listed below, with switch-hitters Jaison Chourio and Yerlin Luis and left-handed hitter Wuilfredo Antunez drawing praise from international talent evaluators, and Petey Halpin and Joe Lampe demonstrating the kind of contact, speed, defensive acumen, and grit the organization loves.
However, I’ve chosen a more recent addition to keep my eye on with ...
Prospect to watch: Justin Boyd, OF, 21, A
The Guardians acquired Justin Boyd from the Reds in the Will Benson trade just before spring training began. Boyd is exciting because, like Steven Kwan, he is a speedy outfielder with a great hit tool from Oregon State.
If the Guardians can help Boyd get the most from his hit tool and develop a little additional power, he seems like the perfect complement to many of the similar left-handed-hitting options the Guardians have in their system with similar skill sets.
I’m excited to see what the organization liked about Boyd as he spends time in Lynchburg and Lake County this season while hoping he might be able to make it to Akron by the end of the season.
Other names to know
Johnathan Rodriguez, OF, 24, AA
Petey Halpin, OF, 20, A+
Jaison Chourio, OF, 18, R
Wuilfredo Antunez, OF, 20, A
Yerlin Luis, OF, 17, R
Joe Lampe, OF, 22, A
Isaiah Greene, OF, 21, A
The “Don’t you forget about me” group
Overview: Below is a short list of players who may be easy to forget about as the season starts. Unfortunately, Chase DeLauter had foot surgery and won’t be back until August at the earliest, but hopefully, we’ll see some good signs from the Guardians 2022 first-round pick.
Joe Naranjo is an excellent first-baseman with a good hit tool who seems like he may be too short in stature to stick at first, but he’s a fascinating player to follow.
Alexfri Planez is another player in the mold of Oscar Gonzalez. No real defensive fit, strikes out too much, and never walks, but makes tons of contact and has plenty of power. Which brings me to ...
Prospect to watch: David Fry, C/IF, 27, AAA
To be perfectly fair, David Fry is probably too old to be a prospect but I can’t help it. I have loved watching him hit in Columbus and now in spring training. I enjoy seeing him try his hardest to make first base, third base, and catcher work, even though his defensive skills are clearly highly limited. I can’t help imagining him as a third catcher who can hit lefties off the bench and give you a chance to pinch-hit for a (potentially slumping) Mike Zunino, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, or Bo Naylor in the right spot.
He’s not the most exciting prospect in this group — that’s clearly DeLauter — but he’s definitely a guy I’m rooting for in 2023.
Other names to know
Chase DeLauter, OF, 21, R
Joe Naranjo, 1B, 21, A+
Alexfri Planez, OF, 21, A+
Which highlighted prospect are you most looking forward to watching in 2023?
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