Rocchio, Arias begin friendly rivalry in shortstop battle

February 22nd, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Against the back wall of the Guardians’ Spring Training clubhouse sits the lockers of and , side by side. It’s fitting that even on name plates above their hanging uniforms, their names are inseparable.

From the moment Amed Rosario was traded last spring, one name couldn’t be said without the other. Will Arias or Rocchio get the bulk of the playing time? Neither made convincing enough cases to be the clear-cut favorite in the final two months of the year.

So, all through the offseason, while they each participated in winter ball, the speculation continued: Will Arias or Rocchio be the Opening Day shortstop? No resolution could be found until all players reported to Goodyear, Ariz.

Now, there’s a position battle to watch.

The pair know what they’re each up against. The two Venezuelan natives block out the extra noise and prioritize the friendship over the head-to-head battle. Rocchio -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Guardians' No. 1 prospect -- stood in the center of a scrum of reporters on Wednesday and Arias jokingly jumped in, pretending to record the conversation and ask questions. It’s clear that the competitiveness gets left on the field.

“I don’t have any hate with anybody here,” Rocchio said.

Instead, he just focuses on what he can control. And that started with getting more playing time in Venezuela.

The Guardians told Rocchio that they wanted him to control his emotions better on the field and learn how to handle himself in intense moments. He was receptive to the feedback and headed to the competitive professional league to practice things, like sticking to his plan at the plate even when runners are in scoring position.

Apparently, it worked. In 20 games, Rocchio hit .377 with a .998 OPS, seven doubles, one homer and eight RBIs while playing shortstop in a historic run that led to his team’s (La Guaira Tiburones) first title in 38 years. The smile beamed on his face while talking about the experience with his family in attendance.

He remembers the go-ahead hit that he recorded in the seventh inning of Game 2 in the finals that sent him over the moon. And he’ll never again experience a moment like the parade in his town after his team won.

“I know when I played in Venezuela, it prepared me more for the Major Leagues than any Triple-A, Double-A ever did, getting that experience of where every game is Game 7,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “So for Brayan to be able to go play for his hometown team, getting the experience of doing it but also winning a championship, now he’s hungry to win.”

It seemed safe to assume that Arias was the favorite to win the job entering camp. It’ll probably stay that way until Rocchio forces more attention to be put on himself. But Arias still has a lot to prove in six weeks in order to assure that the position is his.

Arias, too, played over the winter, hitting .214 with a .543 OPS in 27 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He’s coming off of a season in which he struggled mightily against left-handed pitching -- splits he had never dealt with during his Minor League career. Maybe it’s easier to just assume he’ll get the first shot at shortstop because he had more innings there in the Majors last year, but Rocchio coming out on top isn’t off the table.

“Brayan’s come in with a lot of confidence coming off of that winter ball experience and the winning, and I think it’s going to help him out a lot this year," Vogt said.

The two know the position they are in. They also know guys like Tyler Freeman, Angel Martínez and José Tena will all see some innings there, too. But after each game, Arias and Rocchio will retreat to their lockers, sitting side by side. They’ll talk about their performances. They’ll push each other to get better. They’ll ignore the fact that the other is vying to take their job.

Regardless of how this plays out, the two shortstops want to focus on the bigger picture: Winning. No matter what it takes.

“I said, 'Hey bro, if you win shortstop, if I win shortstop, we just want to go have the best season ever,'” Rocchio said. “Just keep as a unit and keep competing against each other.”