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Reasons for Optimism about the 2024 Guardians: Infielders Edition

Finding reasons to hope for Cleveland’s 2024 season

Bowie Baysox v Akron RubberDucks Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Recently, a Covering the Corner commenter asked why the site’s writers continue to write about potential external additions instead of focusing on the talent on hand? Today, we will examine reasons to hope that the Guardians have the answers already on the roster for their infield.

First, some lay-ups: Jose Ramirez is still the most valuable third-baseman in baseball, Andres Gimenez is projected for an 114 wRC+ with 4.6 fWAR, and Josh Naylor and Kyle Manzardo are both projected for around 2 wins a piece if splitting time for full-seasons between first-base and DH, with Naylor projected for a 122 wRC+ and Manzardo for a 112 wRC+. Bo Naylor had one of the most exciting Guardians’ rookie seasons in a while, and Austin Hedges is the typical elite defender most teams want at backup catcher. If the Guardians are willing to be aggressive and promote Manzardo early to help at 1B and DH, the team seems set for good-to-great production at four of their five infield positions.

So, now for our fifth spot. Who will be Andres Gimenez’s double-play partner and is there reason for optimism that this player will be a positive major-league contributer for the 2024 Cleveland Guardians?

Gabriel Arias: RHH 23.11 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Arias strikes out too much. He had a 32.8% K-rate last season and had only a 76% zone-contact rate which is about 10 percentage points below the league average of 85.9%. His ground-ball rate of 52.3 is also 10 percentage points above the league average of 42.3. Arias also has shown zero ability to hit left-handed pitching, for whatever reason, with only a 1 wRC+ for his career vs. southpaws. While he has a career 119 wRC+ against RHP, it's accompanied by a .338 BABIP which isn't likely to be sustainable.

Reasons for Optimism: Arias had the second-highest hard-hit rate on the 2024 Guardians at 36.6%, he had the second highest barrel-rate on the team at 9.9%. He has a career 119 wRC+ vs. RHP. Arias has only received 65% of his major-league plate appearances against RHP, so if the team were to give Tyler Freeman additional reps against LHP and bump Arias’s percentage of PA’s against RHP to closer to 80-85%, it seems reasonable to expect that his overall numbers would improve. Also, Arias was never great against LHP in the minors but had a .763 OPS against them since 2019 in the minors. That certainly indicates he is better than his career LHP 1 wRC+ and some positive regression should be coming (especially given his career .167 BABIP against LHP).

The defensive ceiling is clear for anyone watching Arias. His arm is otherworldly and his range is sensational. He can be sloppy on routine plays at times, and fumble a bit with his glove work. But, the potential for him to be an excellent defensive shortstop is clearly there. If he gets positive regression and/or limiting exposure vs. left-handed pitching and is handed the keys to the shortstop position where he can relax and do his best defensively, I think it’s not unreasonable to think Arias could be a 100-110 wRC+ player who is elite defensively at the most valuable position in baseball. The zone-contact and ground-ball rates still really concern me, but at only 23 years old, there is reason to think he can improve at both metrics enough to make him an above-average-good major league shortstops. When Arias makes contact, he hits the ball hard enough to make himself as an intriguing an option as anyone:

While I am, ultimately, an Arias-doubter because I think pitchers will continue to exploit his issues making contact in the zone and lifting the ball, if someone showed up and claimed to be a time-traveller and told me he put up 4-wins in 2024, I would not find that claim at all implausible.

Tyler Freeman: RHH 24.8 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Tyler Freeman had a career .119 ISO in the minors. The average shortstop in MLB in 2023 had a .152 ISO. The knock against Freeman, thus, is the classic slap-hitter allegation. He probably is not the level of shortstop that Arias, Rocchio or Gimenez are, so he would require moving Gimenez to shortstop (fine with me, but seemingly not something the Guardians want to do). Freeman also relies a LOT on hit-by-pitches to get on-base if the hits aren't falling, with only a 5.5% walk-rate in the minors. That's a good way to get hurt. He also has, of course, a couple shoulder surgeries in his past, already.

Reasons for Optimism: Freeman seems to have the safest hitting floor of the bunch. He's always going to make a lot of contact and not strike out often. From September 20th to the end of the season, he had a 138 wRC+ with a .350 ISO. If he could barrel the ball at something slightly closer to that 14% rate than his career 3.2% rate, he would be cooking.

Can he do that? Probably not, but maybe he could come close to the .143 ISO he put up in Columbus last year instead of his .096 ML ISO. Maybe being another year removed from shoulder surgery helps with that. He also had fairly even splits over the past three years against RHP and LHP (upper .700’s for RHP, lower .700’s for LHP) so he shouldn’t have to be seen as a platoon bat.

Freeman also has 82nd percentile sprint speed and is supposedly working in the outfield this offseason, which should offer the team some useful versatility.

Brayan Rocchio: SH 23 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Again, the primary reason for doubting Rocchio are the slap-hitter allegations. Rocchio also had a dreadful stretch in the majors last season in August where he had a 37.5% strikeout rate while getting some regular playing time over a three week stretch and a 69 wRC+. He's not the first 22-year old rookie to scuffle and he won't be the last, but the inability to stop swinging and missing at uncharacteristically high rates wasn't great, no matter how much we remind ourselves that it is small sample size for a very young player. Over the past two years in the minors, Rocchio has only a 103 wRC+ which isn’t what you want. His BABIP over that time is only .298, but a .152 ISO doesn’t help with that. Rocchio doesn’t have good speed (52nd percentile) or arm strength (48th percentile), so his toolsiness is limited.

Reasons for Optimism: For his minor-league career, a 112 wRC+ with a .150 ISO, a 15.9/8.4 K/BB% with even splits vs. LHP and RHP as a switch-hitter looks to me like a player who has a shot at being a solid major league player if his glove is special. And, if you watch Rocchio, you can see that his glove work and range have a good chance to be special. Additionally, Rocchio has a .998 OPS in the Venezuelan Winter League where he even added a home run blast in his team’s latest playoff game.

One of the primary reason to be optimistic about Brayan Rocchio is his makeup. He is renowned as a hard worker and an unrelenting student of the game. He demonstrated this in 2021 when, after being stuck in Venezuela the entirety of the 2020 season, he returned and immediately put up a 120 wRC+ with a .184 ISO. Interestingly enough, he ran a strikeout rate close to 22% that season, so part of Rocchio’s past two seasons may have been emphasizing controlling the strike zone. Perhaps taking a few more risks in trying to drive more pitches could help him rediscover some of the power he showed in 2021. One thing is sure, Rocchio is going to work very hard to be the best player he can be for his team.

Juan Brito: SH 22.3 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Brito is not a special fielder, and seems set to be an average second-baseman. He has a only a .169 ISO in his minor-league career. He has also only stolen 41 of 65 bases in the minors, which indicates his speed is not necessarily an asset. Brito also has only 20 plate appearances in Triple-A, so he is probably not yet ready to help the major league team.

Reasons for Optimism: A player with a career 129 wRC+ in the minors with a 15/14.4 K/BB% who can play a decent second-base is someone to be excited about. In the past five years, only three hitters 21 years or younger have had a 125 or more wRC+, a S% of less than 9%, a FB rate over 40% & a pull rate over 50% at AA: Spencer Torkelson, Isaac Parades and Juan Brito.

Brito is also a switch-hitter and while he has clearly better numbers vs. RHP (.880 OPS over the last three years), he’s been solid against LHP as well (.721 OPS over the last three years). Brito seems a safe bet to be an effective hitter with the ability to make consistent contact, take walks, and pull fly balls at a high rate. So, if Arias, Freeman or Rocchio are struggling, I would expect Brito to get an opportunity at the major league level around the all-star break in 2024 and I think he’s a good bet to become a 2-3 WAR player, with a ceiling for more.

Jose Tena: LHH 22.10 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Tena has a career 109 wRC+ with a 24.3/6.5 K/BB% and .148 ISO in the minors, which isn’t bad but also not exceptional. Tena struggled to hit at Double-A (hanging around 100 wRC+) but in 89 plate appearances at Triple-A has somehow hit five homers with an ISO of .427. Tena has looked to be a good defender at shortstop in the minors but put up -2 DRS and -3 OAA in 60 innings at short in the big leagues. His swinging strike rate being consistently in the 13-14% range in the minors isn’t a great sign for his ability to handle major league pitching.

Reasons for Optimism: As noted above. Jose Tena took off with the bat as soon as he made his way to Triple-A.

Interestingly enough, although Tena is a left-handed hitter, he has splits over the past three years of approximately .750 OPS vs. RHP and .830 OPS vs. LHP. His pull rates in the upper level of the minors are around 45%, which is good (while his fly ball rate of 33% could stand some improvement). Tena is actually a very interesting young player who could absolutely be starting at shortstop for a young, rebuilding team. In Cleveland, it looks like he’ll be duking it out with Tyler Freeman for the utility infielder role to begin 2024, but could certainly help the team there if he shows them something this Spring.

Angel Martinez: SH 21.11 years old
Reasons for Skepticism: Martinez had a 96 wRC+ in Double-A and isn’t thought to have a glove fit for playing shortstops in the major leagues, perhaps pushing him to second or third base or the outfield (where he’s been working out in the offseason).

Over the past three seasons, Martinez has a 105 wRC+ with 19.5/9.8 K/BB% and a .157 ISO, which, I think, reflects the fact of how young he has been at every level he has reached (he will only be turning 22 next month), but doesn’t indicate a hitter who is quite ready to help at the major league level yet.

Reasons for Optimism: Martinez regularly runs a swinging strike rate of only around 9%, so, combined with a walk-rate of around 9%, he is showing excellent command of the strike zone. He also has a pull-rate of around 45% and his fly-ball rate is approaching 40%, so he seems a decent candidate to find some extra power as he matures. While he may not be best suited for shortstop, his willingness to learn the outfield makes him an especially useful piece, and, if he takes off in 2024, the Guardians can, again, easily move Andres Gimenez to shortstop to find him a spot at second base.

Summary: Despite understandable fan frustration about the amount of middle infield prospects the Guardians have accumulated, there is a lot to be excited about in this group of six players and I think Guardians fans can be reasonably optimistic that the team will find a major league starter in this mix. From reports of those close to the team, it seems like Arias is in the driver’s seat to get full-time reps at shortstop to start 2024, but I hope the Guardians will be aggressive in moving to other options if Arias doesn’t show any improvement at making in-zone contact and hitting the ball in the air. I’d like to see Rocchio get the next shot with Juan Brito being groomed to take over by the all-star break as needed, but I’m also happy with the idea of the team giving Tyler Freeman or Jose Tena regular playing time at either shortstop or second base (if Gimenez is moved to short). Instead of being convinced that other teams don’t want our middle-infielders, I do think it’s reasonable for Guardians fans to conclude that the organization likes all six of these players and wants to give them as many chances as possible to see who really belongs on a major league roster.

Time is running out, though, as far as options and roster space are concerned, to make the decision on Gimenez’s double-play partner of the future. The team needs to be decisive, and correct, in its evaluations and give the players with the best chance at providing the best value the most opportunities in 2024.