Patience with prospects could pay off for Guardians

March 17th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – When MLB Pipeline conducted a poll of Major League executives this past offseason, the Guardians led polling in two categories. The first was in answering the question “Which team hoards prospects the most?” The Guardians got 32 percent of the vote, more than twice as much as any other organization.

“If I've learned anything about this organization in my time here it’s that we really like our guys,” Guardians assistant general manager James Harris said. “From a player development standpoint, we have to have homegrown guys play for us at the Major League level, so that that's good for a guy who came up in player development, who has now made the adjustment to some executive leadership stuff. I hate trading our guys, too. So it's good that what I personally feel aligns with where we are as an organization.”

One of the areas of strength the Guardians don’t like to trade from is their young pitching. And that leads to the other question in the survey they dominated: Which team best develops pitchers? This one was an even bigger rout, with Cleveland getting 46 percent of the vote.

“We’ve had success. It starts with our scouting group,” Harris said. “People have identified strike-throwers, guys who have some athleticism, mature bodies who come into our system and are open to partner with us. It’s not a system where it’s like a factory where you come in and we create the same pitcher. It’s one where we partner with a pitcher, help him understand his strengths and then complement those strengths.”

Case in point are the top three pitchers in the Guardians’ system. Daniel Espino is smaller and super-athletic and throws 100 mph with one of the best sliders in the Minors. Gavin Williams is 6-foot-6… and throws 100 mph with a legitimate four-pitch mix. Tanner Bibee has taken a Shane Bieber-like approach as a strike-thrower coming out of college who has progressively thrown harder. He hasn’t hit triple digits, but he might have the best command in the system.

Espino has been limited in terms of mound time, making just four starts in 2022 with first a knee issue, then a shoulder injury, which popped up again as Spring Training was about to start and kept him from starting his year on time. While shoulder issues are always alarming, Harris said the team wanted to be extra cautious and make sure everything was stable before allowing him to ramp up and that people shouldn’t read too much into the layoff.

That could bode well for a team that had the youngest roster in all of baseball last year and expects to compete again in the AL Central. All three of those arms hit Double-A last year and it’s certainly reasonable to see some combination of them in Cleveland this season.

“This league seems to be set up to reward teams that draft and develop well,” Harris said. “If you don't draft and develop well, you have to spend a large amount of money to make up for those mistakes, and not every team can do that, especially not us. So we'll lean on our on our strengths and draft well and hope to develop those guys.”

Camp standout: Logan Allen

Speaking of pitching in the farm system, it would be wrong to forget about the top lefty in the organization. Allen is the club’s No. 8 prospect, a former two-way player out of Florida International who went in the second round of the 2020 Draft. He had a terrific first full season of pro ball in 2021, reaching Double-A and leading the organization in ERA. He was very effective back in Double-A last year, though things didn’t go as well with a move up to Triple-A. He’s the type of pitcher who learns from lessons like that and he clearly used them as motivation during his offseson preparation.

“He’s up about seven pounds and he’s throwing the ball a little harder,” Harris said. “He’s up about two miles per hour, which is significant knowing where he was before. He was dominant in Double-A, struggled a bit getting a feel for the ball as he transitioned to Triple-A and ended the year on the good note.”

Something to prove: Gabriel Arias

It’s hard to say that someone in a strong system’s Top 10 really has something to prove, but given Arias’ pedigree -- he signed with the Padres for $1.9 million back in July 2016 and hit over .300 with burgeoning power in 2019 before being dealt in 2020 to the Guardians -- he hasn’t quite produced like some had predicted. He did make his big league debut last year and even started three games at first base in the postseason. His .239/.315/.402 line, hurt by a broken hand during the season for sure, in the Minors falls short of what he’s capable of. He can have a role right now, playing all over the diamond. How much he’ll hit will determine just how often he’ll do that.

“He’s really special and can help us, but he hasn’t quite put it all together yet,” Harris said. “It’s probably one of the strongest arms in the infield you’ve ever seen. Defensively, he can play every infield position and the corner outfields. He’s shown some power. Hopefully the bat comes around.”

Is he an everyday guy?

“That will be the question and he’s worked his tail off to answer that for us,” Harris replied.

Breakout candidate: Jake Fox

Coming out of the Florida high school ranks, scouts loved Fox’s left-handed swing and thought he had a chance to hit. The Guardians were among the teams highest on him, signing him for an over slot $850,000 in the third round of the 2021 Draft. While the overall numbers during his first full season with Single-A Lynchburg in 2022 might not jump off the page, he was among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.381). The combination of his left-handed swing, bat-to-ball skills, excellent strike zone discipline, work ethic and athleticism in multiple positions has a big up arrow next to his name.

“He’s really fun to watch,” Harris said. “He’s going to play second base and primarily some center field, so that’ll be fun to watch as well. He’s an under the radar guy who works hard and shows up and helps your team.”